God’s Word for You
Acts 13:14b-15 The divine call
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, May 18, 2020
On the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue rulers sent word over to them. They said, “Men—brothers—if you have any message of encouragement for the people, please speak.”
Worship in the ancient synagogue had many similarities with worship in our churches today. There was an introductory blessing and prayer, there were hymns sung as well as Psalms, Scripture readings, and a sermon (here called a logos paracleseos, “word of encouragement”). The lessons consisted of one from the Law and one from the Prophets. By “Law,” we mean the regular lessons from the five books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy), which were read in a three-year cycle (Genesis, for example, was divided into 45 lessons). After the Law lesson was read, there would be a supporting lesson from some other part of the Old Testament, although the divisions were not identical, and some sections of the Bible might go unread in the synagogues. For many centuries, Jewish synagogues have not read Isaiah 53 aloud as part of worship, perhaps because it points so precisely and irrefutably to Jesus Christ as the Savior.
Even after in-depth study, it is not possible to determine which Torah (Law) reading led to Paul’s sermon here at Pisidian Antioch. As we will see, he sketches the history of Israel broadly, touching on the basic stories of Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel and 1 Kings. Perhaps his sermon was so broad as to be able to be inserted into virtually any synagogue service, no matter when they attended.
Here we encounter the title “synagogue ruler” as we see in the Gospels (Mark 5:35; Luke 8:41, Luke 13:14). This was the man responsible for order and procedure in the synagogue, and also for cleaning and locking the building and finding preachers. So when Paul and Barnabas came, men who were evidently known to be preachers and even prophets, it was the synagogue ruler’s place and responsibility to invite them to preach. In this synagogue, there was more than one such man, and we are told that “they sent word” over to Paul and Barnabas. According to Luke’s text, this happened during the service itself, although they might have been invited to speak beforehand. This invitation might have been a point of liturgy, yet an invitation might also have been sent ahead of time to give Paul time to prepare what he would say. It takes a considerable amount of time to get a sermon ready. A Sunday sermon can take fifteen to twenty hours of study, writing and rehearsal.
The invitation (sent through a servant, or one of the rulers?) came from the whole supervising team. Therefore Paul’s sermon was fitting and proper. He didn’t just throw open the doors, bursting in on their service, and start shouting about the end of the world. No, he and Barnabas were invited by those in authority to come and deliver a message. In fact, the verb translated “sent” in verse 15 is related to the word “apostle.” An apostle is someone sent out on a specific mission with authority to carry it out, and so the synagogue rulers sent one of their number as a temporary ‘apostle’ to Paul and Barnabas with the authority to do one thing: to invite them to preach.
This passage illustrates the doctrine of the divine call. Our confession says: “It is taught among us that nobody should publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church without a regular call” (Augsburg Confession, Article XIV). This is based on Paul’s words: “How can they preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:15). In ancient times, God called his prophets personally. Even Jesus did not take up preaching on his own, but he was called by the heavenly Father (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Hebrews 5:4-6). A call that comes directly from God is an ‘immediate’ call, one from God without any mediator. This was the sort of call given to Moses (Exodus 3), Isaiah (Isaiah 6), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1), the twelve apostles (Matthew 10) and to Paul (Acts 9:1-9). God also calls ministers through believers in the church. This type of call we refer to as ‘mediate.’ Paul and Barnabas appointed elders and preachers in Galatia this way (Acts 14:23), and the invitation here is another example. Our pastors and teachers today receive a mediate call through a congregation, a school, or a group of congregations such as a district or a whole synod. A divine call is not, as some believe, merely an inner feeling or inclination to preach. God works through means, or he speaks directly. He does not call through feelings or inclinations. If a preacher claims that he has been called directly by God, he must show this to be the case through miracles (Acts 14:3).
When our young people consider a career in the preaching or teaching ministry, they enroll in our college of ministry to be trained, and then they offer themselves for a divine call. They do not choose the ministry, they simply choose to train for ministry. When they are given a call (from church, school, district or synod) they can be fully confident that their call is indeed from the Lord through his church. They can carry out their work fully comforted by the words of Jesus: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (John 15:16). And also that God has promised: “Now go; I will help you to speak and teach you what to say” (Exodus 4:12). And again: “You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you” (Jeremiah 1:7-8). Pray for our young people who are entering the ministry today or who are contemplating study for the ministry in the future. Pray that God would be with them, that his Spirit would strengthen their faith and their resolve, and that the message of Jesus and his forgiveness would be the central theme of all their preaching and teaching.
Pastor Timothy Smith