There really is something extraordinarily energizing about the early years of a new church. As with our lives, though we might like to stay a teenager forever in some ways, a church also has to grow up and live through other seasons. But those early years of vitality of living through new experiences together are special memories indeed.
At TSF, we’ve had experiences of living through such a time and setting the course locally for contemporary ministry that God has multiplied through dozens of other churches in our region. I remember one time when we were interviewing a young man as a possible candidate for a pastoral staff position, he was hesitant to come, and even said, “You guys are so out there that you are doing the stuff that happens before the cutting edge arrives!” Well, that was an overstatement to some extent – probably revealing as much about the comparatively traditional place where he was serving as it spoke of the actual ministry of TSF at that time.
Antioch was truly the cutting edge church of the early New Testament era. I wrote last week that if there was one Bible person I’d like to be, it would be Barnabas. And if there was one church of the early Christian era that I’d like to be part of, it would be the church in our reading today – Antioch of Syria. So it is interesting that Barnabas becomes the primary leader of this congregation.
The Gospel message that had spread throughout the Roman world after the persecution that broke out upon the occasion of the martyrdom of Stephen had spread to Antioch – a city about 300 miles straight north of Jerusalem in what would today be Syria. This was no small city. Having been favored by prominent leaders in both the Greek and Roman empires, at the time of the writing of Acts, it was the third most important city in the Roman sphere. It was a renowned center of commerce and luxurious living, populated as well by maybe about 25,000 Jews. In what today might be called “a university town,” it was a place of cosmopolitan blending of cultures.
The text today clearly states that the empowerment of God’s spirit resulted in a tremendous response of the Gospel message by large numbers of Gentiles. The news of this came to the ears of the mother church in Jerusalem who, as we read yesterday, had come to the startling realization that such was a new work of God. And so it was deemed wise to send Barnabas to oversee and bring his unique encouragement skills to this high-energy and fledgling community. It was a perfect choice!
Barnabas arrives and sizes up the situation, realizing he needs some serious help in discipling all of these new believers. Being Gentiles in large numbers, they would have lacked the Jewish background and Old Testament foundations necessary to understanding the richness of God’s work through Christ as the fulfillment of the plan of the ages. Barnabas went through his mental rolodex of apostolically-qualified resumes, deciding that Saul of Tarsus was the perfect guy. He had the background and the communications skills. He was from just 100 miles to the northwest and was oriented toward success in such a cosmopolitan context. Saul was never going to fit comfortably in the more stuffy environs of the Jerusalem church. So here was a place he could really bloom. It was perfect for the church; it was perfect for Saul.
So Barnabas fetches Saul for this task, and together they teach for a year. This must have been an amazing season of ministry. The believers were making an impact upon their surrounding culture – to the extent that it was here they were first given the title of “Christians.” There was no hiding their faith and commitment.
God has always used different churches at different times to accomplish the work of reaching varied types of people. Certainly the church communities in Jerusalem and Antioch were very different from one another. One was not more correct than the other; they were simply in different places with a different sense of a vision from God as to what the local expression and mission of their ministry should be. But the unity of the one true Church (capital C) was evident in the heart of the people in Antioch to care for the poor in Jerusalem, and so a generous gift was collected and sent in the care of both Barnabas and Saul. These folks were simply stellar in their faith – truly a great church in every way.
The Church in Antioch – Acts 11:19-30
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
27 During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.