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 (Manna 75: Towards Maturity)
A Mature Church—the Church in Antioch
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A Mature Church—The Church in Antioch

Samuel Kuo—Flushing, New York, USA

The immigrant experience is familiar to some readers of Manna, many of whom are of Asian descent, living in western countries such as the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, or elsewhere. Some of us personally made the decision to migrate; others followed our parents and experienced the highs and lows of settling in a new country; and the rest, while born in a western country, are no more than one or two generations removed from the relatives who decided to immigrate there.

According to the Bible, shortly after the church in Jerusalem was established, many Jewish-Christians decided to emigrate because of severe persecution (Acts 8:1; 11:19). One of the churches established through this migration was the church in Antioch. In many regards, this church serves as an example for churches everywhere. Even if we relocated to wherever we are for better opportunities, rather than to escape persecution, and even if our church was not established by immigrant believers, development in the church in Antioch serves as a vision for every church. Antioch grew to be a mature church. It behooves us to follow her footsteps.


One of the characteristics of the early church was that her members brought the gospel wherever they went (Acts 8:4). Though persecution caused them to flee for their lives, the gospel was never silenced. Samaria received the gospel because of this evangelistic spirit (Acts 8:5), as did Antioch, the third largest city in the Roman Empire at the time.

When the evangelizing members reached Antioch, the Bible purposely indicates a contrast between two types of Christians. The first only preached to their own people—the Jews. They were comfortable with them. They knew the vernacular. They knew the culture. This is natural. However, the second group was marked by their willingness to preach to people who were different from them. They spoke to the “Hellenists,” the Greek-speaking non-Jews (Acts 11:19–20).

The spirit in which they witnessed for Christ stands out in a number of ways. First, their personal evangelism wasn’t just directed at family, relatives, and people they already knew. They preached to non-Jews—people very different from them. It required them to overcome their timidity and shyness. Second, they were in a brand-new environment, in a brand-new country, confronted with foreign customs. They had to adapt quickly. Third, preaching to non-Jews was a very new, even revolutionary, idea at the time. (Peter had just preached to Cornelius in the previous chapter of Acts. It is possible that Cornelius’ conversion had not even happened yet). They had to overcome their prejudice and traditions.

In other words, their immigrant status did not serve as an excuse for them not to preach to the locals. Instead, they were so moved by the message of the gospel that they had to share it with everyone. And God was pleased, so “the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21).

Today the True Jesus Church in many countries is following the same blueprint. Just like the church in Antioch, many of our churches were planted through immigration. And over the decades, the church has grown further through personal evangelism. But we must place more effort into reaching out to those who have different backgrounds, cultures, and ethnic origins. It is easier to stay within our Asian social circles, but our call is not only to them. We were called to preach to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8; 13:47). Let us grow into maturity. Let us overcome timidity and habit. Let us take the gospel with us wherever we go.


When the church in Jerusalem heard of the growth in Antioch, they sent a worker to visit and encourage the members. You can see the unity, fellowship, and organization of the early church, which we aim to emulate today. The worker they chose was Barnabas, “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24a). The primary criteria used were not of talents or eloquence, but of spiritual character. Additionally, he had a more encouraging and accepting personality—when all the other disciples were afraid of the newly-converted Saul, Barnabas was the first to accept him (Acts 9:26–27).

So when Barnabas arrived in Antioch, he “encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord” (Acts 11:23b). God was pleased and “a great many people were added to the Lord” (Acts 11:24b). Most likely because of the growing needs of the church, Barnabas went to seek out Saul in Tarsus. With the arrival of Saul, and their ensuing year-long ministry, the church was greatly edified.

It is at this point in the narrative that the Bible records a most remarkable statement: “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26b). This is significant for several reasons: the statement immediately follows the description of Barnabas and Saul teaching in the church, indicating the importance of sending faithful workers to developing areas. It was through their labor that the members could truly manifest Jesus Christ in their lives, so much so that outsiders called them “Christians.”

The fact that they used “Christians” is significant as well. The term “Christian,” from the Greek Χριστιανός, Christianos, literally means one who is associated with Christ; a Christ-partisan. Therefore, it serves as a commentary of how the believers carried themselves within Antiochian society. They weren’t a secret, hidden assembly; there were many actions that people saw them doing naturally. Perhaps they witnessed how often the believers gathered for fellowship and services, how they ceased from working on the Sabbath, and how they would proclaim Christ wherever they went. To outsiders, it was obvious that the members in Antioch followed Christ. “Christians” fitted perfectly.

Finally, the statement in verse 26 is a commentary on the diversity of the church. The church in Antioch comprised members from many nationalities, ethnicities, and languages—Jews and non-Jews together in one assembly. It wasn’t possible to identify the group by only one category, because they were not a homogeneous group of people. The world had never seen anything like this before, so they had to coin a new term in order to classify them. They decided to call them “Christians.”

So a pressing question for all of us is: can others see Christ in our lives? Or is Christ completely hidden from our public lives? When we gather, would others call us Christians? Or do they only see our ethnic origins? When we “remain true to the Lord” (Acts 11:23; NIV), people will be able to tell.


More workers eventually visited Antioch. One of them, Agabus, was a prophet from Jerusalem who spoke of a famine that would spread across the Roman Empire (Acts 11:28). The Bible did not elaborate on what Agabus said, only that he prophesied that hardship was coming. It did not state he called for specific action. However, the members in Antioch had an immediate response. Even though the famine would affect them too, they considered their brothers in Judea; they prepared financial aid, each giving according to their own ability. This was an act of immense love.

Every so often, we hear of church news from around the world. Developing areas often express financial need. When we hear such news, we might not respond; but on the other hand, we could empathize and help with what we can. This is what the church in Antioch did, even when it wasn’t asked of them. Eventually, Barnabas and Saul brought the aid to their brethren in the south (Acts 11:30).

Presumably, Antioch started as a church in need. But in the end, they were not only self-sufficient, they could also help other churches. This is often the trajectory of our churches around the world. Typically, each local congregation begins in financial deficiency, requiring funds to build, purchase, and to furnish their church facilities. But through God’s abundant grace, after reaching sufficiency, they are able to help others in need. We should strive to continue this culture of giving and supporting one another.

However, financial resources are not the only means by which we give; we should aim to contribute human resources. In Acts 13:1, we see that within a short number of years, the church in Antioch gained many powerful workers. The diversity of this list is noteworthy. Barnabas was born in Cyprus (Acts 4:36); Simeon, who was called Niger, likely received this nickname because of his darker skin (niger being Latin for black or dark); Lucius was from Cyrene, the northern part of Africa; Manaen grew up with royalty; and Saul was from Tarsus, the southern part of Asia Minor. In the end, the Holy Spirit chose and sent two of them to other areas for ministry work. This was the first of many missionary journeys that Saul (or Paul) embarked on.

This is the aim of every church that strives for maturity. Where do the workers come from? At first, they may come from other areas, like Barnabas who was first sent to Antioch from Jerusalem. But after a period of time, they should come from within. We cannot persistently rely on outside help; we must aim to support ourselves. Eventually, after reaching self-sufficiency in workers, we must seek to generate help for other needy areas. Therefore, in order to meet this aim, each church has to emphasize comprehensive training of her members. Antioch’s contribution to the church was incredible—think of all the wonderful works Barnabas and Saul (Paul) did to expand the kingdom of God in the Roman world!

Consider a final illustration. Conspicuously, China and India routinely fail to qualify for the FIFA World Cup every four years, even though they are the two most populous countries in the world. This raises the question: can they not find eleven men to field a world-class team among their billion-plus? Then again, where will the players come from? Surely, from among themselves; it is not as if they can hire non-nationals to play for them. Therefore, more investment and interest is needed within their own national soccer leagues.

So it is with the church. Are there needs within our local churches? Are we short of pianists? Bible study leaders? Visitor attendants? Sermon deliverers? Interpreters? It seems like we often lack manpower. But where do we think workers will come from? Surely from amongst ourselves. As individuals, we may also have to look within. But beyond these local needs, if local churches can contribute human resources to full-time ministry, as the biblical precedent has shown, it would greatly aid the expansion of the kingdom of God.


As the remaining chapters of Acts unfold, the story of the church in Antioch fades into the background of the narrative. We are only told that she continued to serve as a base for Paul’s missionary journeys (Acts 14:26; 18:22). Nevertheless, she left an indelible example for us all.

May our churches continue to mature and grow more in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And may we establish little churches of Antioch everywhere.

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Author: Samuel Kuo