Good morning! Today we look at the first Christian missionary congregation! It began less than 10 years after Jesus’ resurrection in a city 300 miles north of Jerusalem in what is now Turkey. The city was called Antioch.
Antioch was home to ½ million people. The stadium there held over 70,000 people. It was the third largest city in the Empire next to Rome and Alexandria in Egypt. It was bustling, urban, sophisticated, wealthy, and pagan. Antioch was located on the Silk Road, the main trade route between the Far East and Rome. A perfect place for a missionary church!
Antioch was home to many Hellenistic Jews. Many Jewish Christians fled there during the persecution that followed the martyr of Stephen. Do you remember the name of the instigator of that persecution? It was Saul – who later became the great missionary Paul.
Let’s pick the story up Acts 11:19. “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. 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. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” Acts 11:19-21
If you were here last Sunday, you heard the story of Cornelius and Peter. While Peter was sharing Jesus with Cornelius and his family, the Holy Spirit came upon them in exactly the same way he had come on the Jewish believers that first Pentecost morning in Jerusalem.
For some of the Jewish Christians, this was the most exciting thing they could imagine. But for others, it was terrifying. The fences put up by centuries of tradition that separated Jews and Gentiles were collapsing. Some of them wondered, “Is this really what Jesus came to do?”
They knew the stories about Jesus and the thief on the cross, the lepers, the Canaanite woman and her demon possessed daughter, the Samaritan woman at the well. They agreed are lovely stories. “But do they mean we have to invite people like this into our congregation? Shouldn’t they have their own congregation for their own kind?”
This struggle is still with us isn’t it! It’s easy to forget, this is not our church! It’s the Lord’s church and his purpose is to draw the whole world to himself. Our job is to welcome them and love for them – especially those we may consider to be different from ourselves.
Luke tells us that some of the Jewish Christians who fled to Antioch shared Jesus only with other Jews. People like themselves. People they felt comfortable with. I can understand that. But some were telling the Gentiles about Jesus.
These Gentiles were being converted and filled with the Holy Spirit! Soon the number of Gentiles in the church out- numbered those who were Jewish. Was this a good thing or a bad thing? They couldn’t agree! I think even some of the apostles were confused about it.
When news of this reached the church in Jerusalem, the apostles sent Barnabas to check things out. They could not have sent a better man.
Remember Barnabas? His name means “son of encouragement”. And he was. When the church in Jerusalem was just getting started
and needed money to care for those in need, it was Barnabas who gave the lead gift to prime the pump and get things started.
When Saul arrived back in Jerusalem after his conversion and none of the Jewish Christians trusted him, it was Barnabas who befriended him and told the apostles to give him a chance. Barnabas was respected for his grace, wisdom, and spiritual maturity.
“When (Barnabas) 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. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord…”
It wasn’t because Barnabas was a fireball preacher. It was because Barnabas loved Jesus and he loved people regardless of their background. He lived out Jesus’ command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” After he arrived the church exploded with growth. It soon became apparent they needed help.
“…Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 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.” Acts 11:22-26
Remember Saul? The Lord had benched him, now the time was right to put him back in the game. Paul writes in Galatians 4:4 that at the right time, the perfect moment, the kyros moment, God sent forth his Son Jesus to be the Savior of the world.
Scholars point out that the growth of the early church was partly due to the fact that the Romans had cleared the roads of robbers and the sea of pirates! We may not understand or agree with God’s timing, but we can bank on the fact, that in the end, his timing is perfect!
“During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world… The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for their brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” Acts 11:27-30
A missionary church is filled with people who have a passionate desire to reach the lost and care for the suffering. Their hearts overflow with thanksgiving and generosity.
I remember our first trip to Mexico with the youth group many years ago. We were in a little mission compound in Tijuana. It didn’t take long for the kids in the neighborhood to be at the fence begging for candy. One of our team gave a candy bar to one of the kids outside the fence. I was afraid they would start fighting over it. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, the youngster who received the candy bar quickly broke it up and shared it among all the other kids who were there. He didn’t even consider hoarding it for himself. His generosity shamed me. I wondered, is it possible that the more we have, the harder it is to share? Does God’s abundance somehow harden our hearts and fill us with fear? “Lord, soften my heart and our congregation’s heart against this creeping sin of fear and stinginess.”
Saul and Barnabas worked together in Antioch and the surrounding area for about a year when they received news of a massive famine and the Jewish Christians who were suffering back in Israel. So this primarily Gentile church in Antioch dug deep and collected an offering for their Jewish brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. What a testimony to God’s grace!
The congregation in Antioch was less than 10 years old. Our congregation is over 90 years old. What can learn from them? Several things stand out to me! The first is this.
These baby Christians in Antioch were passionate to share the Good News of Jesus, even in the face of extreme persecution and it was coming. “Lord, don’t let us lose our passion.” Jesus warns us in his message to the churches in Revelation that this is possible. He says,
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” Rev 3:1-3
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” Rev 3:14-18
See what? Here we go. Are you ready? Lord, help us…
1. See our lukewarm faith and the selfishness that easily takes root in our hearts and repent!
2. Experience again God’s power to save sinners like us and fill us with the Holy Spirit so we can step out in courage and faith to do the job you have called us to do.
3. Seek God’s power to soften and enlarge our hearts. Fill us your love and compassion for the lost people who surround us. Help us see beyond ourselves.
4. Set us free from our fear and attitude of scarcity so that we might share generously and joyfully out of the riches You have given us.
This is what the church in Antioch looked like. Not a perfect church, but a faithful church! They were taking the light of Christ into the world. By the power of the Holy Spirit at work among them, this congregation was a distribution center for the grace, love, and truth of God across the Roman world. We are still benefiting from their work today.
This congregation in Antioch is what a mission church is supposed to look like! It’s what every church is supposed to look like! And by God’s grace, it’s what our church looks like. Are you with me in this? Let’s pray: “Lord, make it so!” “Lord, make it so!”