The multi-ethnic church in Antioch was the first to do many things we find more-or-less normal for churches now. Click back to last week’s post about the first four ways they defined what “church” should be, then read on for three more ways they set the pattern.
5 – First church to purposely send missionaries (Ch. 13)
First Church of Antioch had a leadership team of five people: Barnabas, Simeon Niger, Lucius, Manaen, and Saul/Paul. One day, a couple of years after Barnabas and Saul delivered First Church’s gift to the church in Jerusalem (discussed last week)…
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.” –Acts 13:2
Paul & Barnabas didn’t know all
the places they would go and
all the things they would do!
That work was to spread the Good News throughout Asia Minor and the Greek peninsula. Of course, Barnabas and Saul/Paul didn’t know how far they would go or all the things that would happen to them over the next eleven years and three round trips.
It seems we don’t have the complete picture here.
- Did they make a habit of worshiping and fasting every week or month, or was this a special occasion?
- Were they praying God would send someone out from their congregation?
- How did everyone know what “work” the Holy Spirit was talking about?
- Did they actually leave the same day? That’s how the text reads.
Obviously, people had gone places and told others about Jesus before this time, but they had been personally commanded by the Holy Spirit for a brief purpose (e.g. Phillip in Acts 8:26-40, Peter in Acts 10) or forced from their homes (e.g. Jerusalem persecution in Acts 8:1). This is our first record of a Christian group intentionally sending some of their leaders to another place for the purpose of spreading the Gospel.
Interesting note: Barnabas and Saul/Paul’s first stop was Cyprus (Acts 13:4-12), the hometown of one of the first evangelists in Antioch (Acts 11:20). I wonder if this Cyprian was still in Antioch. Maybe he suggested they start with his family and friends. Maybe he gave them some contacts—a place to start this massive undertaking.
Also, Luke finally switches from “Saul” to “Paul” in Acts 13:9. I’m doing that now, too.
6 – First missions conference (Ch. 14)
Barnabas and Paul were gone for two-and-a-half or three years on that first trip. When they finally returned to Antioch,
They gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. –Acts 14:27
These days, almost every big evangelical church has a missions conference. Missionaries and others report on their work, sharing stories of what God has already done and visions of what He is going to do. Being the first official sent-ones and the first sending church, this was the first-ever missions conference, with Barnabas and Saul/Paul constituting the entire panel of missionaries!
Antioch was a safe place for
these missionaries to recuperate.
Barnabas and Paul stayed in Antioch for quite a while (Acts 14:28). It was a safe place, where they could physically recover and spiritually refresh. Paul spent time in Antioch again after his second round-trip (Acts 18:22).
7 – First big theological controversy (Ch. 15)
It can’t all be good, right? First Church of Antioch led the way in many aspects of a thriving church. Dealing with controversy is part of any growing ministry.
By this point, Paul & Barnabas
had seen God save both Jews and
Gentiles across Asia Minor.
While Barnabas and Paul were recuperating from their multi-year, multi-national mission, some Judeans came into the church, telling people they needed to be circumcised before they could truly be saved. Our missionaries knew this wasn’t true. Both in Antioch and across Asia Minor, they had seen the salvation of non-Jews and knew God wasn’t focused on outward acts. (Remember, Antioch was the first place we know of where Gentiles went straight to being Christ-followers without becoming Jews first.)
Paul would later write,
Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. –1 Corinthians 7:19
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. –Galatians 5:6
Clearly, Paul had a strong, consistent opinion on this issue.
First Church of Antioch sent Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem for a conference with the apostles. They would settle this issue!
But it wasn’t much of a debate. Peter knew from experience that Gentiles could be and had been saved, in the same way Jewish people were saved. (I love this part!)
Why do you [Jerusalem leadership] try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear [i.e. the law]? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we [Jews] are saved, just as they [Gentiles] are. –Acts 15:10-11 (brackets added for clarity)
Likewise, Paul and Barnabas had multiple stories of people coming to faith without treading through the murky waters of Judaism first.
Thus, after very little debate, the Jerusalem council wrote a letter to First Church of Antioch, and by extension, all Gentile churches/believers (Acts 15:23-29). A couple of representatives—two prophets named Judas and Silas—accompanied Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch to deliver the letter. The church was satisfied with what it said, and no one had to “go under the knife.”*
What seemed like a big controversy in the beginning fizzled into a friendly letter. But still, Antioch faced the first time the universal Body of Christ dealt with an inter-church controversy. I think they handled it well.
First Church of Antioch passes out of Luke’s historical account after Acts 18, but it continued to flourish, notably under St. John Chrysostom, (a.d.347- a.d.407). Unfortunately, an earthquake killed 250,000 people in the city in a.d.526 and Muslim Arabs overtook Antioch in a.d.635 ( The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, 82]). At the site of ancient Antioch, one now finds the modern city of Antakya, Turkey. Google lists a bunch of churches for Antakya, including St. Paul Orthodox Church and the Church of St. Peter.
3 more ways the church at Antioch (Acts 11) was a trailblazer in its time and continues to be a trendsetter for the modern church. This is what “church” should be. My #churchidentity is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)
I hope this wasn’t merely an intellectual read for you. Just like last week, these “firsts” clearly show God’s intentional plan for the church to be His means of spreading His Kingdom. What are you thinking now that you see these 7 firsts at Antioch? I would appreciate your feedback by dropping a note in the comments below!
*I’m not really satisfied with the instructions from the Jerusalem council. They seem rooted in cultural conditions, but this isn’t the space to dig deeply into it. Maybe in another post.