THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES | PART 4: ACTS 11:29-30; 13:1-3
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
The Jerusalem assembly chooses seven Spirit-filled men for the task of distributing food to the community of believers, so that the widows among the Greeks would not be neglected by the Jews (6:1-6). The assembly presented the men- all Greeks – to the apostles, who “praying, laid hands on them,” blessing their appointment. In this manner, the church offices of elders –for ministry of the word – and deacons – for care of the church community – were established. We observe (1) the deacons were lifted up by the assembled church; (2) for daily care of the church community, not for outreach to the city of Jerusalem; and (3) the elders prayed and blessed the deacons, but did not join them in their task, differentiating the roles between the two offices. These verses show how the first church of Jerusalem adapted to its growing size and conflicts within its community; the church addressed its needs and resolved its conflicts with the involvement of the entire assembled body.
The big picture in The Acts tells the story of the church expansion, from its origin in Jerusalem, to Samaria, and then to the Hellenized world of the Gentiles. This was the world enriched by Greek culture, and its nations were not those witnessed to by the nation of Israel. Two of the newly appointed Gentile deacons, Stephen and Philip, proselytize by preaching (Acts 6-8). Philip goes to Samaria, where the gospel is accepted (8:5-25) and also encounters the Ethiopian eunuch, who he baptizes (8:26-40). Stephen, however, is arrested and martyred for his preaching (6:8- 8:1). Saul, later to be called Paul, is in the crowd that watches Stephen’s stoning (7:54-8:1a). The religious authorities have succeeded in arousing the city to reject the Jesus community, giving impetus to its establishment of an identity independent of the Jewish temple.
The turning point for the church – its breaking from the past – is marked by Saul’s conversion. The God of Israel is the God of the church, but the nation of Israel has failed to believe in Jesus, the Messiah, who is God. The rejection of Jesus continues Israel’s pattern of rejecting the prophetic word of God’s prophets, which Paul’s missionary activity extends. Less than three years have probably passed since Jesus’ death, and Paul’s vision of Jesus, which literally blinds Paul, is correspondingly more intense than the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his other apostles. Significantly, Paul receives the Holy Spirit from Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, who, while not an apostle, lays hands upon him, filling him with the Spirit and restoring his sight. Paul has no sooner been converted, than he begins preaching, and for his preaching he quickly becomes himself a target of persecution (9:1-30). Although his conversion is not at first accepted in the Jerusalem church, the church “throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria was experiencing peace. Being built up and proceeding in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it was being multiplied” (9:31).
Paul’s call is specifically to the Gentiles and involves significant reform of traditional Jewish structures and practices, “such as Torah, purity and Sabbath.”[i] The central figures of Paul’s message are twofold: the Resurrection and divine grace. It is Peter, however, who first opens “the way for Gentiles to become Christians.”[ii] Peter baptizes Cornelius, a Roman soldier, into the church (10:1-48), and then addresses concerns expressed about the conversion by the Jerusalem church (11:1-18). In Antioch, the practice began of calling believers, both Jews and Gentiles, by the name of Christian, evidence of the community’s emerging self-identity (11:19 – 30).
The city of Antioch lies in what is today called Turkey. Early Christianity grew mostly in urban centers, and Antioch was a large city, having a population of several hundred thousand; only Rome and Alexandria in Egypt were larger. Antioch was also on a major trade route, so the population was diverse and wealthy, providing opportunity for evangelism. Elsewhere, Christians escaping persecution preached the Gospel to Jews, but in Antioch mostly to Hellenized Gentiles, whose culture was predominantly Greek. The Gospel was preached in Antioch, not by the Apostles, but by lay people, who also founded the local churches. Multitudes were converted, much as had been true in Jerusalem, where the first church served as a model for those which followed.
The prophet named Agabus, down from Jerusalem to Antioch, “foretold a famine by the Spirit” which took place “in the days of Claudius” 5 – 10 years later. Responding to this prophesy, the disciples in Antioch “each according to his ability” contributed to a relief fund for Judea, which was sent with Barnabus and Saul to the elders in Jerusalem. This is an example of the tremendous generosity the early church practiced, with Antioch following Jerusalem’s example, even as we may fruitfully. We learn that from the beginning teachers were part of the church in Antioch, for the Holy Spirit interrupts their teaching, so that Saul and Barnabus can be commissioned for missionary travel. The teachers of the Antiochian church pass on the same knowledge of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit, as will shape and direct the church through the centuries; the church is ordered supernaturally, and we should not be misled by those who argue, they don’t need to be present in the church to live as Christians.
One striking feature of the comparison between the church in Antioch with the church in Jerusalem is their similarity, despite the one being Jewish, and the other predominantly Greek. Both preach the gospel with power, convert large numbers, teach the Word of God, especially about the Jewish Messiah, and practice a radical generosity, taking care of the needs of its members.[iii] Most importantly, “the exalted Christology that is central to orthodox Christianity…is clearly in place by AD 36. This Christology is something the Christians in Jerusalem and Antioch share.”[iv]
The persecution that has helped spread the way of Jesus out from Jerusalem continues in Jerusalem. James, brother of John is martyred; Peter is arrested and then miraculously rescued from prison, and Herod is consumed by worms in an act of divine judgment. Against this backdrop, Peter is driven out of Jerusalem, where the church continues, organized much as it began, but marginalized outside of the temple. James, brother of Jesus, takes over the leadership role in the Jerusalem church. This is the point where the narrative of Acts switches over from its accounts of Peter to its accounts of Paul and his missionary activities.
Over the past several weeks, we have looked at the first two Christian churches: the first church in Jerusalem, and the church in Antioch. We have noted similarities and differences between them. Are we able to apply what we have learned to our present circumstances? Many of us shy away from involvement in church decisions because we do not want to get involved in what we call church “politics.” In The Acts, however, Luke shows us that from its beginnings the church depended on the involvement of its entire assembly. The seven deacons were not chosen by church elders; they were chosen by the church assembly, and its choice was then blessed by the elders. The deacons were Greek believers, because they were being chosen to address an injustice within the body perpetuated against Greek believers; the assembly righted a wrong, in an effective, responsible manner, making a decision that was surely not easy. In our own church, are we not also called as a body to responsibly take corrective action where there are unmet needs?
The early church grew in numbers because, guided by the Holy Spirit, conflicts were not permitted to go unresolved. The church unified around its mission, preaching the word with power and taking care of the needs of the believing community. As there was unanimity between the churches regarding the Gospel message of the Resurrection and divine grace, the church in Antioch honored its connection to the first church in Jerusalem by making monetary provision for it at the same time it provided for its own needs. The Jesus church was built up by radical generosity, not by frugality, and from the start, the church was mission oriented. We see active involvement by laity, deacons, and elders in all aspects of Gospel proclamation, church provision, order and decision-making. Let us all train, each for our own vocation, to advance Christ’s church in the world, with unity in prayer. Amen
[i] Darrell Bock, Acts, BECNT, 351
[ii] Carson and Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 287
[iii]Andy Chambers, Exemplary Life, 124-125
[iv] Bock, ibid, 413-414