A Mature Church—The Church in Antioch
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.
CARRY THE GOSPEL TO THE WORLD
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
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.
BE KNOWN AS CHRISTIANS
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
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,
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.
GENERATE RESOURCES FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD
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
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.