“Antioch Revisted and Relived.”

This morning, I want to begin by thanking our church Board for allowing me to spend some time catching up and preparing for the conference in Orlando.  Your willingness to allow me to be out of the pulpit means that whatever ministry the Lord allows me to have in Orlando, will be your ministry to them.  Also, I want to thank those who filled in for me while I was away—Ryne Dean, Pastor Daniel and Larry Filmore.  It was good to hear from you.  This morning I want to take one more week away from Galatians to focus on some texts from the book of Acts.  My goal is to renew our enthusiasm for church planting.  I want us to remember that though there has been and will be some grief associated with this process, there is far more blessing in planting a church for both churches and we want to see that this morning.   To give a Biblical lens through which to look at this, I want us to turn to several texts in Acts as we look at the hub of church planting in the New Testament, the church at Antioch.  As we study what God did in and through the church at Antioch, I trust that this will stoke a passion to expand God’s kingdom here in Duluth. 

Before we look at the church at Antioch, it’s important for us to know a bit about the city in which it was located.  Antioch was founded in what is today Turkey and came under Roman rule in 64 BC.  The Jewish historian Josephus calls Antioch “the third city of the empire,”[1] behind Alexandria and Rome.  It was certainly one of the largest cities in the empire, with about 500,000 people during New Testament times.  Antioch was a very cosmopolitan city.  By that I mean that there was such a mixture of cultures, thanks to the many immigrants who lived there, that there wasn’t one dominant culture to which you had to conform in order to fit in.  There were people from all over the Ancient Near East living in Antioch.  Included in that group were many Jews who had come from Jerusalem, about 400 miles south and from other places.  In Acts 13:1, Luke highlights this great cultural diversity.  Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” 

Think about these five prophets and teachers who were living in Antioch. First there was Barnabas, who we know was a Levite originally from the island of Cyprus.  Cyprus had a strong Jewish community, but it was not at all like Jerusalem.  Second was a man named “Simeon who was called Niger.”  Some have speculated that Simeon was the man who carried the cross for Jesus.  We can’t know that with certainty, but it’s almost for certain that he was a black man from Africa because the nickname Niger was Latin for “black.”  Also in the church was “Lucius of Cyrene.”  Cyrene was part of Northern Africa in what is today Libya, so this man was also an African, though living in Antioch.  There was also a man named “Manaen, a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch.”  The word translated “member of the court” strongly implies a very close relationship.  Manaen was perhaps a foster brother of Herod Antipas.  He was the ruler who beheaded John the Baptist and he had been dead only a few years at this time in church history.  Luke mentions this relationship to communicate that the church had people from all classes of people including a few of the wealthy and those with powerful associations.  Finally, Saul of Tarsus is mentioned in Acts 13.  Saul was of course a very well educated Jew from another important city in the empire about 100 miles from Antioch.  Among other things, Luke lists these names to underscore that Antioch was a very culturally diverse place—this was a radically different life from Jerusalem.

The historians also tell us that there were many Jews living in Antioch who worshipped the God of the Bible, but there were also many pagan Gentiles, including an abundance of people involved in the occult.  The over-riding message of the book of Acts as it relates to Antioch is that the church in Antioch was the center for Jewish Christian mission the Gentiles.  While Jerusalem was clearly the center of Jewish Christianity, Antioch was the hub of Gentile Christianity.   That arrangement of having two centers—one Jewish, the other, Gentile, is not necessarily what you would have expected based the prophecy Jesus gave about the expansion of the church before he ascended.   He said in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."  Jesus said the growth of the church would be in concentric patterns beginning in Jerusalem and then gradually branching outwards until it came to the Gentile regions outside of Palestine.

Based on Christ’s words in Acts 1:8, if we were to have predicted how the church would expand into these areas, we might have expected a rapid start of the expansion after Pentecost, followed by the church methodically and with great intentionality sending waves of apostolic missionaries to these pioneer areas.  In fact, that’s not the way it happened at all.  We know from Acts chapter 15 that several of the apostles were still living in Jerusalem almost 20 years after Christ’s resurrection. Acts eight tells us how the church actually began to expand into these outer regions.  Luke tells us that after Stephen was martyred “…there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” [8:4] It was the persecution of the church and the scattering that resulted from it that pushed it outward to the other areas.  That is what spurred the expansion that led to Philip the evangelist preaching the gospel to Samaria. 

We see this persecution-driven dynamic again in chapter 11.  These verses introduce us to the church at Antioch.  Luke writes, beginning with 11:19, “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.”  Those who were persecuted were driven as far as Antioch and if Acts eight is any indication, evangelists like Philip preached the word as they were pushed.  When the gospel came to Antioch, it came, not by the hand of the apostles, but from some unnamed Jewish evangelists.  In chapter 11 it says, beginning in verse 20, “20But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.  21And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.”  These were Jews who came and preached to the “Hellenists” in Antioch.  There is some debate about what the word translated “Hellenist” means.  Probably, it means these people who were not Jewish by race.  They were uncircumcised Gentiles but they were sympathetic to the teachings of Judaism. These were probably the Gentiles elsewhere called “God-fearers.”  This was not the beginning of the full-orbed ministry to pagan Gentiles.  Paul is the first to preach to large numbers of pagan Gentiles, but neither was this a mission to the Jews.   The mission of Antioch represented a mid-way point between the Jews and the godless pagan Gentiles to whom Paul and Barnabas would soon be sent.  These unnamed evangelists found a ripe harvest in Antioch and many of them “believed [and] turned to the Lord.” 

The story takes another turn as Luke continues in verse 22.  He writes,   22The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  Although the church in Jerusalem had not sent these missionaries to Antioch, as the center of the church of Christ, the apostles and elders wanted to know what was going on in this church because it was opening a new chapter in the progression of the gospel.  Nowhere else had this happened on the scale of what was going on in Antioch—uncircumcised Gentiles turning to Christ in these numbers.  The Jerusalem church sends Barnabas to see if this is of the Lord.  Barnabas we know from Acts chapter four where he had distinguished himself in sacrificial service to the church in Jerusalem.  They probably also sent Barnabas because he was originally from Cyprus, about 100 miles away from Antioch.  He was familiar with the Gentile culture in ways that most of the leaders in Jerusalem were not. 

Verse 23 continues, “23When he [Barnabas] came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose,  24for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.  25So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul,  26and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”  Barnabas comes on the scene and he sees God pouring out his grace in Antioch.  He does what he always seemed to do; he encouraged them to continue on.  Barnabas was the “son of encouragement” and he is doing his ministry here in the midst of this great harvest.  At some point early on, Barnabas sees all these Gentiles getting saved and he thinks of Saul, who he knows is called to minister to the Gentiles.  Saul had been in Tarsus for about the last 12 years doing what, we do not know.  That part of his life is shrouded in almost complete Biblical silence.  Barnabas makes the 100 mile trip to Tarsus and in the Providence of God convinces Saul that he has found the will of God for his life—to come and help him in Antioch--and so begins the recorded apostolic activity of the greatest missionary in church history.  This is how Saul gets to Antioch.

For the rest of his recorded ministry, the city of Antioch becomes Paul’s adopted home and the church in Antioch becomes his adopted home church.  The church at Antioch was Paul’s sending church just as we are the sending church for our four or five global missionaries and locally for The Water’s Edge.  Those are our “Pauls” and “Barnabas.’” It’s from Antioch that Paul begins his first missionary journey and it’s to Antioch he returns home. Likewise, Paul begins and ends his second missionary journey in Antioch and takes off from his third missionary journey from the church at Antioch.  Luke wants us to see that it was not the leaders of the Jerusalem church that reached the Gentiles.  It was the leaders of the church at Antioch.  It became the hub of Gentile missions.  It’s as if in some ways, God here hands the missionary baton from Jerusalem to Antioch. 

What else do we know about this church in Antioch that became the center of Gentile mission in the early church?  What information does Luke give us about the character of this church?  We know it had a heart to reach people for Jesus--those people in their own back yard in Antioch where there was a great harvest, but they also had a heart for the unreached Gentiles beyond them.  We see at least two other characteristics of this church as the Holy Spirit through Luke reveals them in Acts.  First, as we go back to chapter 13, remember what Luke highlights about this church in Antioch.  He says in 13:1, “Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers…”  And then he lists five prophets and teachers—men who were messengers from God speaking God’s word and men who were teachers of God’s word. 

It’s no accident that the Holy Spirit through Luke, in the one statement that explicitly refers to the specific gifts in the church, he mentions prophets and teachers. When you see one defining statement about someone or something in Biblical narrative, don't miss that--that’s important.  And these were not just any teachers—Barnabas, who we met back in Acts four when he was living and sacrificially giving in Jerusalem, and the greatest theologian in church history, Saul of Tarsus were in the church.  One of the characteristics of this church at Antioch is: It was a church where proclaiming and teaching the word of God was central.  This was a church where meaty, nuanced—Pauline-like teaching was found.  Each church has its own distinct characteristics.  The Corinthians were arrogant, the Bereans were careful students of the word of God.  In Antioch, the great sending church to the Gentiles, Luke mentions the prophets and teachers as part of what made this church distinct.

In the next chapter of Acts, we see one of the reasons why it was not only healthy for the church to be this way, but also strategic for Antioch to be exceptionally precise and discerning in their doctrine.  After Paul and Barnabas come back from their first missionary journey, we read beginning in Acts 14:27, “And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.  28And they remained no little time with the disciples. 15:1But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."  2And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.  3So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 

The story told here is so typical of how things happen in the church of Christ.  Paul and Barnabas have just returned from their amazing first missionary journey and are, with great joy and enthusiasm, regaling their sending church in Antioch with phenomenal stories of God’s grace among the Gentiles.  This is a beautiful season of triumph and celebration at Antioch.  But in the context of that season of great joy, Satan slinks into Antioch in the form of false teachers from Judea—almost certainly Jerusalem—Judaizers who were teaching that in order to be saved the Gentiles in Antioch and everywhere else the gospel had reached, needed to be circumcised.  As we know, the teaching of these men got a lot of traction in churches like the ones in Galatia—where these false teachers almost destroyed the church with their legalism.  But when they wandered into the church at Antioch, they had come to the wrong church!  Paul and Barnabas and presumably the other teachers and prophets, who could sniff out a false teacher from 50 yards, were on them like white on rice.  These Antioch men of the word not only knew the gospel far too well to swallow this error, they had seen and heard reports of God working through the gospel to save uncircumcised Gentiles.  This church was in this respect like the church in Ephesus.  Jesus said of this church in Revelation 2:3. He says, “I know…how you cannot bear with those who are evil and have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.  When this false teaching arrived in Antioch, it came to an absolute dead stop. 

What was the result of this?  Verse two tells us.  “…Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question, so being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria…”  Because this ministry to the Gentiles was brand new and no formal, authoritative ruling had been made on this question of circumcision, the church at Antioch brought this question for a ruling from the leaders of the Jerusalem church.  It was these teachers and prophets in Antioch that incited the Jerusalem Council where the church formally decided how to deal with these new uncircumcised Gentiles that had been saved.  They wanted to nip this in the bud and notice in verse three that these teachers and prophets of the word were “sent on their way by the church.”  This wasn’t just a few independent Bible teachers who brought their case to Jerusalem; they were authorized to go to Jerusalem by the church in Antioch.  Why?  Perhaps it was because the church at Antioch had been well taught and they wanted this matter settled so that it would not plague their church or the others they had planted through Paul and Barnabas.

God clearly had a strategic plan for this doctrinally careful Antioch church to carry out, but more than that, this church at Antioch dispels a lie so often heard today in the North American church.  We could put it something like this—“local churches that do the most effective evangelism and mission work don’t get all hung up with teaching doctrine.”  Or to put it another way, “churches that work hard at teaching the word are of necessity not effective at reaching people here and to the nations.”  There are individual churches where that happens to true, but it certainly isn’t the will of God.  There are churches that produce people who barely know the Bible, but who are merciful and zealous to reach out to lost people.  These people are an inch deep in knowledge, but a mile wide in outreach.  There are other churches that are like academies—very theologically precise, but no outreach.  These are terrariums that produce people who are a mile deep in knowledge, but an inch wide in outreach.  The church at Antioch—that is held up as a model, teaches us that it doesn’t have to be that way and in fact, it shouldn’t be that way.  The church in Antioch was theologically deep in their knowledge of the gospel and could spot a phony a mile away, AND they were wide in outreach that came from their passion to share this astonishing news of the gospel about which they had been so well taught.  It’s not either/or, its both/and.

A second characteristic that Luke implies in his brief narrative about this church’s ministry is in 13:2-3.  He writes of the church, “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.”  A second characteristic of this church at Antioch is:  It was a devout, Spirit-dependent church.  These verses tell us that Antioch was not filled with cold, sterile, walking Bible dictionary-type people.  They put their theology into action!  Their love and knowledge of the Spirit-inspired Word moved them into Spirit-directed, Spirit-empowered ministry.  They weren’t simply ministry machines, cranking out acts of service for the sake of staying busy or meeting ministry objectives. 

They wanted to do Christ’s ministry. That meant knowing the will of the Spirit and knowing the will of the Spirit meant worship and prayer that were turbo-charged with fasting.  They wanted God’s will so badly, they were willing to miss some meals it.  They were blood earnest in their seeking after God’s will for them as a church.  Don’t miss the relationship between on the one hand, the deep devotion of these people, and on the other, the astonishing, world-changing ministry God entrusted to them.  God didn’t use just any church to be the central command for the first great wave of his global mission.  He used a church that was well taught in the gospel and from that passion for truth, there had arisen by God’s grace a beautiful, Spirit-dependent devotion expressed through fasting and prayer and Spirit-filled worship and fruitful ministry to the lost—locally and globally.  Don’t miss the pattern—love and earnest teaching of the Word that gives rise to devotion in fasting, prayer and worship, that gives rise to fruitful outreach, locally and globally.

Oh, don’t you want to be a church like the one in Antioch?  I know in my heart that’s what God wants for us.  He wants us to continue to send out Pauls and Barnabas’, here and to the nations.  He wants us to be deep in the word and wide in our outreach.  He wants Mount of Olives, like the church in Antioch to be part of a plentiful harvest here in our backyard as well as to the uttermost.  He wants us to faithfully and carefully teach the nuanced Word of God and to allow our love and knowledge of the gospel to stoke sacrificial devotion as we seek, not just any ministry, but only those that are God’s will for us and that carry the promise of his blessing.  This is what he wants for The Water’s Edge too; however that will be expressed in the years ahead.

What he doesn’t want is for us to be a Mini-bible College where we come to class on Sunday and do little or nothing with the information on Monday through Saturday.  What he doesn’t want is to give justification to those who spew the lie that a church can either teach or reach, but it can’t do both.  May God give us the grace to be like the church in Antioch for his glory here in Duluth and to the nations.

[1] As quoted in “The Spirit, and The Church, The World…,” John Stott, 1990, p. 203

Page last modified on 11/22/2008

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