The book of Acts is Luke’s second account of the good news about Jesus and how through the power of the Holy Spirit it spread from Jerusalem to Rome. The extremely complex ethnic world of the first century is evidenced by the multiplicity of nations gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost in Acts 2. The missionary agenda of the Acts missional movement comes from a missionary God in Acts 1:8 but the template of reproduction was already spelt out in Matthew 28:16-20 [missional discipleship]. It is extremely important to note that the Jerusalem church did not comprehend God’s agenda for the nations initially and maybe for a very long time. Incidentally Antioch was Paul’s first recorded local church where he was a teaching pastor at the bottom of a multiethnic and multi-gifted Leadership Team (Acts 13:1). Church planting became the heart of the Pauline mission.
FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS ABOUT THE ANTIOCH CHURCH PLANTING STRATEGY
- WHO PLANTED IT? (11:19-20)
It was a group of immigrants from North Africa and South Eastern Europe (at the intersection of three continents (Europe, Africa and Asia). But there had a spiritual experience from a city-shaking revival in Jerusalem. They were running for their lives after Stephen’s persecution set in motion a persecution of the followers of Christ. The ‘divine’ missional issue to grapple with is whether their migration to Antioch was circumstantial or God initiated.
The Antioch church planters were ordinary nameless believers with no professional church planting experience or certification. All they had from the Jerusalem experience was a passion for Jesus and the fire of evangelism – Missional zeal! They did not start a church and then followed it with mission, but they started with mission and then found a church in the process!
The key lesson for us is to pay more attention to the kind of “seed” (“sons & daughters”) we plant and ask ourselves – what do they carry? Do they carry budgets and administration tools only or they carry the presence of God and His missional heartbeat? The Antioch church was planted by pioneers (risk takers), and not just maintainers.
- WHO WAS THE PLANT FOR? (11:19 – 21)
The location was very strategic – Antioch was the third largest city of the Roman Empire, cosmopolitan and a commercial hub for the entire region. Initially they thought it was for the homogeneous Jewish community because that was their experience and exposure in Jerusalem. Their paradigm did not go outside the parochial view of Jerusalem. But the Antioch church was an international, multiethnic city with a population of half a million inhabitants from all corners of the known world. God had other plans for this city…and thank God someone listened to Him! There was a linguistic adjustment to their preaching from the “Messiah” (Jews would have understood) to Lord Jesus (“Kyrios” meaning Lord, a title comparable to Caesar) so that the Greeks would understand. Their “table manners” (kosher) were affected too! If God had a city church in mind, then he had to break the racial, cultural, ethnic and class barriers to touch lives of all kinds of people.
- WHO ARE THE PARTNERS OF THIS PLANT? (11: 22-24)
Jerusalem was very important at this time in the development of the Antioch church in terms of apostolic authority, foundational modelling and catholicity. Barnabas was sent in from the Jerusalem church to assess the Antioch mission. The choice of Barnabas is very important and speaks volumes about the depth and insight of the Jerusalem church as well as the role of the Holy Spirit. Barnabas, a good man full of the Holy Spirit and faith, was also bicultural and therefore was culturally competent. He probably knew these church planters from his home country.
Barnabas was presumably given authority to either shut it down or lead it on and bring in partners of his own based on his assessment. He chooses to bring in Paul (formerly known as Saul). Paul was an excellent choice for the Antioch mission enterprise. He too was bicultural, highly schooled in Judaistic Theology, and Greek philosophy, and most importantly, spiritually regenerated and a follower of Jesus Christ. Paul already understood multiethnicity because of his upbringing in Tarsus! Paul brought a gift mix of teaching, pastoring, and discipleship to partner Barnabas in pastoring this new fledging church.
We also know that Barnabas and Paul received a ministry team from Jerusalem which included prophets. The prophetic word was acted upon and served to build closer ties between the homogenous Jerusalem church and the multiethnic Antioch church – partnership!
- WHAT IS THE PLANT FOR? (11: 21, 23, 24, 26, 28)
God is written all over this new church plant of its kind on Antioch city. The role of the Holy Spirit is prominent. The Mission-questions must drive the church-answers, not vice-versa. If the church is meant to grow, then the “three self” principles must apply in the medium to long term: self-propagating, self-financing, and self-governing. But today, because of the complexity of the societies we live in and the diversity of churches, we need to add the fourth one, self-theologizing (Hierbet).
Antioch went on to be a World Missionary Centre because the church leadership
considered these questions in depth. Barnabas was the bridge by which the Jerusalem church validated the Antioch church plant and it produced one of the most prolific church planters the world had ever seen – Paul. The turning point of the Gentile missionary enterprise happened at a meeting in Jerusalem where a theologically significant Church Council meeting of apostles and elders in Acts 15 had far-reaching missiological implications. Henceforth, the center of missionary activity shifted from the monocultural Jerusalem church to the multiethnic Antioch church.
The spotlight moves from Peter, an apostle to Jews, to Paul, an apostle to Gentiles as the central figure. Antioch was the training ground for Paul’s teaching and application of Christology (Person & work of Jesus), which determined his Missiology (missio Dei – Purpose of God and his people) and therefore was able to engage in fruitful Ecclesiology (form & function of the church). Christ is the foundation for any church plant – Our theology has to be right on this one because the key question is NOT what kind of church are we planting but what “seed” are we planting? From this seed we then preach the life-giving gospel! These and other questions take us to the heart of church planting paradigm.
In light of the new demographic trends of the twenty-first century, the probability of a resurgence of Christianity in the Global North depends on models of multiethnic congregations that are living examples of authentic reconciling faith communities. The ekklēsia is where the biblical truth of the cross of Christ demolishing all barriers between God and people of all ethnicities, reconciling them to the triune God and to each other, becomes a reality in the power of the Holy Spirit. The picture of the end time church is that depicted by the Antioch church-planting model that defied exclusivity of worship and stratified status-conscious society by becoming a thriving multiethnic witnessing faith community.