The Missionary Church in Antioch
Do you want to know more about church planting and the mission activity of God’s church? Consider the remarkable example of the church in Antioch (Acts 11:19ff). It only takes a few verses to tell this story, but this inspired historical account shows us one of the many ways God continues to gather and to mature His church.
Let us consider how God initially gathered His church in the city of Antioch of Syria. This history is recorded for us in Acts 11:19-21. We can learn several important lessons from these verses.
Scattered by Persecution
First, consider when the church in Antioch was initially gathered. These events come directly after Peter preached to Cornelius the Roman centurion. The book of Acts is about the spread of the gospel beginning in Jerusalem, going into Judea and Samaria, and then expanding “unto the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Antioch church account and the story of Cornelius tell how the gospel began to be preached to Gentiles and to expand outside of Jewish boundaries. Note how the Word of God grows and increases throughout the inspired history of Acts (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20).
Scripture notes that these events came after the persecution of believers in Jerusalem: “Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen traveled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only” (Acts 11:19). Right after Pentecost, the church was centered in Jerusalem. Most believers were ethnic Jews — they were physical sons of Abraham. Now persecution forced these believers to disperse. These believers then traveled to various Jewish communities. Thus, the good news of the gospel came as far as the city of Antioch.
At that time, Antioch of Syria was the third largest city in the Roman world. It was located near the coast on the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea. This city was home to about a half-million people, including many prominent Jews. Antioch was a city of great political importance and a cultural melting pot where people of many ethnic backgrounds interacted. It was also an idolatrous city; every religion of the ancient world was represented: Hellenists, polytheists, idol worshippers, and many Gnostic cults. This city, located about 250 miles north of Jerusalem, would soon become important in the spread of the gospel to the Gentile world.
So the believers, scattered by persecution, began to gather together in the city of Antioch. Who were these believers? Mostly likely, they were not official leaders in the church. If they had been a delegation from the Apostles, or if they had been official church leaders, then it would not have been necessary for the Apostles to later send Barnabas (Acts 11:22). No, these people were just common, ordinary believers who were persecuted for their faith. They were simply followers of Jesus. They were living epistles of the gospel message. So they came to Antioch and spoke the Word to their Jewish neighbors.
Second, consider what these believers began to do. At first, they spoke the Word “to none but the Jews only” (Acts 11:19). They did not speak to their non-Jewish neighbors. This is understandable if we remember how proud the Jews were of their cultural heritage. Before Jesus came, the Jews thought that they only were God’s special people; God’s revelation was only for them. Yes, a few proselytes could occasionally enter their elite group, but only if they carefully obeyed all the ceremonial laws and customs. Even then, these proselytes would not be allowed to worship with ethnic Jews in the temple. It is understandable, therefore, that the followers of Jesus were slow to realize that the gospel message of salvation in Christ was also for the Gentiles (cf. Eph. 2:13-14). This slowness to understand caused a communication barrier — obstructing wall — for the spread of the gospel. Note that obstructing walls for the gospel are created whenever a church’s important cultural and ethnic heritage is valued higher than their identity and unity in Christ.
Inspired history, however, records a significant change in the activity of New Testament believers: “And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20). The original word translated as Grecians is used two other times in Acts (cf. 6:1, 9:29). It refers to people who were not ethnic Jews — not physical sons of Abraham and who probably were not followers of the Jewish faith. We can think of this group as Gentiles, some of whom may have been converted to Jewish or Christian beliefs. So there was a mixed audience in Antioch; some were part of the covenant community while others were not.
The remarkable fact is that this communication with Gentiles signals an amazing turning point in the New Testament church. These believers in Antioch were obeying Christ’s parting command: they were bringing the gospel to all ethnic groups (i.e., nations, Matt. 28:19). We see here an excellent example of cross-cultural communication. These believers in Antioch now overcame communication barriers between Jew and Gentile when they spoke the Word to the Grecians.
Look at their message. Luke, the inspired historian, gives us a simple summary: they were “preaching the Lord Jesus.” The word preaching comes from a Greek word meaning “to evangelize” or “to tell the good news.” Certainly they must have spoken about the Messiah who lived and died sinlessly so that dying sinners could live. They must have spoken about Christ’s bloody sacrifice that appeased the wrath of God against guilty idol worshippers. They must have said that Christ now lives as King of heaven and earth. And these believers surely spoke to their neighbors about how faith in Christ had changed their lives. They displayed their faith. They evangelized in the pagan city of Antioch.
The believers in Antioch did not officially proclaim the Word to the Gentiles — they were only common, ordinary believers and not church leaders. They did, however, evangelize the Word. They communicated the good news of the resurrected Savior to other ethnic groups. Why did they cross these former gospel-barriers in spite of previous persecution? Because they had been commanded to do so by their Lord. Obedient love constrained them to publish the Lord’s salvation to the ends of the earth. Certainly, they would have echoed the words of Peter and John: “for we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). In today’s terms, these faithful believers in Antioch were engaged in cross-cultural evangelism.
- So the activity of these Antioch believers overcame barriers for the spread of the gospel. At least four types of barriers were crossed:
- The Antioch believers crossed geographical barriers when they traveled into the new territory of Antioch.
- They crossed ethnic barriers when they spoke to people who were not of the physical seed of Abraham.
- They crossed cultural barriers when they associated themselves with “common people” (cf. Acts 10:14-15, 11:8-9) and fellow-shipped with Gentiles.
- They also crossed religious barriers when they brought the message of the Messiah to non-Jews, to Hellenists, and to pagans. At first, the believers were only speaking the Word. Then they began to evangelize the Word. Later Barnabas and others would officially proclaim the gospel message and exhort the gathered believers from the Word.
A Great Number Believed
Third, consider the outcome of this evangelistic activity in the city of Antioch. Inspired history gives us both the reason and the result: “And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord” (Acts 11:21).
The result of the believers’ evangelistic activity was that “a great number (of people) believed, and turned unto the Lord.” A great number believed when they heard the good news of the gospel communicated by the newly arrived believers. This was probably the first time many of these Gentiles had heard about Jesus Christ. Perhaps these Gentiles had already heard about the Jewish religion. Perhaps some of them had already given up their polytheistic idol worship for Jewish doctrine. This, however, was probably the first time the monotheistic message of salvation through the Messiah death and resurrection was preached to them.
Scripture says they believed the preaching of the Word. This means that the Holy Spirit worked faith in their hearts. It means they put their hope and trust in Christ’s finished work of salvation. The fact that this happened to “a great number” at once does not discount the reality that each one was individually brought to true faith and repentance by the Holy Spirit.
Scripture also says a great number “turned unto the Lord.” This Greek verb for turned or returned is used nine times in the book of Acts to signify the activity of conversion (cf. Acts 9:35). When the Spirit works faith in a person’s heart, the resulting activity is a turning away from sinfulness and towards holiness. Paul was used by the Spirit for the Gentiles “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God” (Acts 26:18). In the same way, the believers in Antioch were used by the Spirit to turn the Gentiles from idolatry to worship of the true God. The evangelistic activity of the believers was used by God to bring about a great revival.
What is the reason for the believers’ success? Scripture says “the hand of the Lord was with them.” Notice this phrase: “the hand of the Lord.” It is a Hebrew idiom from the Old Testament (cf. 2 Chron. 30:12; Neh. 2:8, 18; Luke 1:66). The presence of the Lord’s hand signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 4:28, 30). The Sprit worked His special effectual calling through the Word by means of these believers. The hand of the Lord was upon ordinary people as they shared the gospel. This is the reason that “a great number” were converted.
So Acts 11:19-21 teaches us about cross-cultural communication, church planting activity, and the gathering of God’s church. Consider two initial from this inspired history.
First, the church was gathered only because “the hand of the Lord” was present with the believers. We must always remember that the Holy Spirit is sovereign. He works where He wills and no one can tell how He comes and where He goes (cf. John 3:8). The reason for the believers’ success is only because the Spirit chose to use their words. This should not surprise us; only the Spirit through the Word can work true conversion in the heart of a sinner. Nor should this confuse us; revivals are always the work of the Holy Spirit alone. He usually uses human agents and other means to produce the result of faith and repentance. But the ultimate reason and success is always from God. The revival in Antioch and all revivals since then are exclusively the work of the Holy Spirit.
Second, the church was gathered only when the believers were willing to reach outside of their comfort zones and to cross communication barriers with the gospel message. The Lord blessed the preaching of the Word by the believers when they were obeying His command. He had commanded His followers to bring the gospel to all ethnic groups, and this is exactly what the Antioch believers did. Not only did God bless their activity with a great revival, but He also gave a favorable account of it in inspired history. Their evangelistic activity is still an example for the church today.
So what does this inspired history teach us about church planting? Two simple conclusions can be drawn from these observations. First, knowing that the obstructing wall of separation has been removed in Christ (Eph. 2:13-14), we must be willing to be used by the Lord in this way. Second, we must constantly pray that the hand of the Lord will be upon all our efforts to share the gospel with those who have not heard (Acts 4:24-30). Who can tell if God would be pleased to build His church with our simple efforts? The history of the Antioch church causes us to hope for great things from the Lord. In the next two articles, we will consider the continuing activity of the church at Antioch and identify several characteristics of a missionary church.
Maturing of the Church
Consider the maturing activities of the newly gathered church in Antioch. The end of Acts 11 draws our attention to at least five ways in which the Antioch church was established.
First, note the apostolic continuity of the church (Acts 11:22-24). When the Apostles in Jerusalem heard about the revival in Antioch, they sent Barnabas to verify the news and perhaps to give guidance to this new gathering of believers. Barnabas was a respected Jewish believer who was originally from Cyprus (cf. Acts 4:36 with 11:20). The Bible says he was “a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). This made him an excellent choice for leading an apostolic delegation to the newly gathered believers. When Barnabas arrived, he witnessed the grace of God at work in Antioch. He was greatly encouraged that God had blessed the preaching of the Word with a Spirit-worked revival. He then encouraged the believers and instructed them to continue in the faith with purpose of heart. So it was through Barnabas that the apostolic authority was passed on to the believers in Antioch.
Second, note the leadership development at Antioch (Acts 11:25-26a). Barnabas had an important role in the establishment of this church. He was a visionary team leader. He must have soon realized that he could not do the work alone. So Barnabas temporarily left this new church plant to find additional help. Perhaps he was reminded of the young Saul (later Paul) and his ability to reason with the Grecians (Acts 9:29).Whatever the prompting, Barnabas persuaded Saul to help lead in this new congregation. Notice this picture of team leadership and shared responsibilities.
Third, note the long-term education program within the church (Acts 11:26b; cf. 15:35). The believers’ activities included more than just preaching the Word and cross-cultural evangelism. The leaders also regularly assembled with local believers, and they “taught much people.” This included more than just a catechism class for the children. Barnabas also patiently trained Saul and perhaps the other leaders in Antioch (cf. Acts 13:1) for a whole year.
Fourth, note the new identity of the believers there: “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26c). This signals the continued separation of new believers from the old Jewish faith. From this point forward in the book of Acts, we see the center of the Christian faith moving away from the geographical location of Jerusalem. God’s church was no longer bound to a certain place or ethnic heritage. The middle wall of separation had been overcome (Eph. 2:13-14) and now Gentiles were being added to the church daily.
Fifth, note the financial ministry of the church (Acts 11:27-30). The believers in this young church were not self-centered. Like their leaders, they also had a vision for God’s global church. When they were made aware of the pending need of believers in Jerusalem, they provided what help they could. They had already realized that giving money to those in need is an important part of the church’s ministry.
Sending of the Church
Consider also the sending activity of the established church in Antioch. This was another important turning point for the church. Remember from the last article that the first turning point was when the Jewish believers began evangelizing the Grecians. Now, there is another pivotal change in Antioch: “As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:2-3).
Luke, the inspired historian, explains how the Antioch church was instructed to send out two missionary ministers. This likely took place while the church was busy with the maturing activities described above. They were engaged in active ministry, accompanied with prayer and fasting. It was at this time that the Holy Spirit instructed them to separate two of their leaders for a special task. This the church did, ordaining Barnabas and Saul, and sending them away. While being obedient to Word and Spirit, the Antioch church became the first missionary-sending church.
Now perhaps a question comes to your mind as you read this history: Considering the role of Barnabas and Saul in the young church at Antioch: Why did they have to be sent out and travel to distant lands? Both Barnabas and Saul were important leaders in the Antioch church. Barnabas was the first person sent by the Apostles in Jerusalem to support this new church plant. True to his name, he had expressed great joy at the Lord’s work in Antioch and had spoken comforting words to them all. Barnabas was a man full of the Holy Spirit. And Saul was equally important to the young Antioch church. He was one of their main teachers. He was also respected by the people; they had sent him on a delegation to Jerusalem with their collection money (Acts 11:30). Yet Barnabas and Saul were sent away to continue the work in other lands.
Why should missionaries be sent out to distant places when much work still needs to be done close to home? Why did Barnabas and Saul have to move across additional cultural and ethnic barriers with the gospel? And why were the most experienced leaders in Antioch sent away? Often today, it is the least experienced leaders in the church who are sent out as church planters and missionaries. Would not Saul and Barnabas have been more effective at home? They could have sent Simeon-Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, or Manaen (Acts 13:1).
Are you asking this question? Then think about a few of the many reasons missionaries must be sent out from their local congregations:
The church must send out missionaries because this is the King’s command. Jesus Christ, the King of the church, has commanded us to go and teach all nations. In the gospel of Mark, the church leaders are commanded: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). The gospel must be preached everywhere in the world to every person. Is preaching within the church necessary? Yes. Is local evangelism necessary? Yes. Is global mission necessary? Yes. The command is to go and preach. The extent of this command reaches to the uttermost part of the world.
The church must also send out missionaries because this is how the Word grows and increases. The history of the book of Acts is a story of the expansion of the gospel into new territories: from Jerusalem, in Judea, through Samaria, unto the uttermost parts (Acts 1:8). The Apostle Paul’s vision was to go where the gospel had not yet been preached (Rom. 15:20) — he was making plans to go as far as Spain. God has promised to give the whole world to His Anointed King: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession” (Ps. 2:8). Now the promise was being fulfilled. We are instructed to pray, “Thy kingdom come.” We must desire that the whole earth be filled with God’s glory.
Additionally, the church must send out missionaries because this is how God will bless all nations. Paul asks: “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14). True, there are thousands dying around us who have never heard the gospel. But they still have the opportunity to hear the gospel daily — our land is full of churches. Who will go to Indonesia where the Christian church is small? Who will go to Muslim countries where the people dwell in thick darkness? Who will go and preach? Jesus Christ is the light of the nations; He offers salvation unto the ends of the earth (Isa. 45:22).
And finally, the church must send out missionaries because this is the example set for us by the missionary church of Antioch. The believers there were not selfish; they did not hoard God’s heritage for themselves. They sent out their best leaders to go and preach to others. Certainly, we can send out a few seminary graduates as church planters and missionary ministers.
Maintaining of the Church
Having noted the maturing (Acts 11:22-30) and sending (Acts 13:1-3) of the Antioch church, consider finally the maintaining activities of this church (Acts 14:26-28; 15:1ff). At least three activities can be noted from this inspired history.
First, it is highly probable that the Antioch church continued in all the activities described above. The leaders continued preaching and teaching within the church. Though there is no record of this in inspired history, they probably continued evangelizing both Jews and Gentiles in the city of Antioch. Later they sent out additional missionary teams: Paul and Silas went again to Asia Minor while Barnabas and Mark traveled to Cyprus (Acts 15:39-41).
Second, the Antioch church maintained fellowship with their missionaries. Only a few verses relate this activity, but it is clear that the Christians in Antioch were in communication with Barnabas and Paul. Upon returning to their home base in Antioch, they organized a mission night. The missionaries then “rehearsed all that God had done with them”; they explained to the believers “how (God) had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27, cf. 18:22-23).
Third, the church in Antioch was actively involved in the defense of sound doctrine. Certain believing Pharisees began teaching that all Christians — including Gentile converts — must obey the ceremonial laws of Moses (Acts 15:1, 5). Today, this would be like requiring African and Asian Christians to follow the customs of European Christians in order to be saved. The Apostle Paul, however, hotly resisted this corruption of the gospel. In his letter to the Galatians, he argues for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Much of this discussion in the global church took place in the city of Antioch (Gal. 2:9ff). Not able to resolve this debate locally, the church of Antioch then sent a delegation to the Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem. This important council (Acts 15:6ff), prompted by the Antioch church, was another crucial turning point in New Testament church history.
Now consider each of the multifaceted activities of the church in Antioch. These are examples for our churches today. Go back and scan through each of the sub-points in this article. Consider the big picture. Then compare the activity of the Antioch church with what your local church is doing. How does it compare? Every church is different with unique circumstances, a distinct location, special needs, and an assorted ethnic and social composition. Do not expect all of these activities to be found in every church — the New Testament gives examples of a diverse variety of different churches in different areas with different needs and problems. But there should at least be some similarity between your church and the church in Antioch. Go back and study this inspired narrative, and then consider how you — with your church — can apply this instruction.
Antioch’s continued history is a pattern for established churches. They matured in their Christian ministry. They sent out missionaries to other areas. They worked to maintain fellowship and sound doctrine within the global church. Let us learn from their example and apply it in our churches where appropriate.
Summary of Inspired History
Let us begin with a brief summary of the church’s activity. First, remember that this church was initially gathered after persecution (Acts 11:19). Christian believers from various places moved to Antioch when they were forced to leave their homes around Jerusalem. They were forced to give up some of their comforts.
Second, notice the evangelistic activity of this newly gathered group (Acts 11:20). They declared the good news about Jesus Christ. At first, the message was spoken only to Jews and Jewish proselytes, but then they crossed a new ethnic boundary. The Christians in Antioch put aside their Jewish distinctives and began to speak to the Grecians. They overcame their ethnic pride and spoke to people who were different from them.
Third, do not overlook the fact that the revival in Antioch happened because God sovereignly chose to bless the believers’ evangelism (Acts 11:21). The hand of the Lord was with them. The Holy Spirit joined their words, and worked repentance and faith in many hearts.
Fourth, remember that the newly formed church in Antioch received their apostolic authority through Barnabas (Acts 22-24). The Apostles sent Barnabas. Then Barnabas, having witnessed the grace of God, helped to establish and encourage the Antioch church.
Fifth, consider the leadership development in this church (Acts 11:25-26a). Realizing that he could not do the work alone, Barnabas found Saul and involved him in the work. The leadership worked as a team, learning together with the new church.
Sixth, notice the long-term education program that was started in the church (Acts 11:26b; cf. 15:35). Barnabas, Saul, and perhaps other leaders regularly assembled with the local believers and they “taught much people.” The people studied God’s Word together.
Seventh, do not forget that the ethnic diversity in the Antioch church gave them a new identity (Acts 11:26c). The middle wall of separation had been crossed (Eph. 2:13-14) and God’s church was no longer bound to a certain place or ethnic heritage.
Eighth, notice the financial ministry of the growing Antioch church (Acts 11:27-30). When made aware of a need, they assisted their poor brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. They were not self-centered but had a vision for God’s global church.
Ninth, consider that the Antioch church was the first to send out cross-cultural missionary teams (Acts 13:2-3). When the church leaders were busy ministering and praying, the Holy Spirit told them to separate two of their leaders for this special task.
Tenth, it is likely that this church continued local evangelism even after sending out missionary ministers. There is no record of this in inspired history, but several years later they were still gathering together and sending out additional mission teams (Acts 15:30ff).
Eleventh, observe how this church maintained fellowship with their missionary ministers. Paul and the other missionaries from Antioch often returned and “rehearsed all that God had done with them” (Acts 14:27, cf. 15:35, 18:22-23).
Twelfth, consider that the church leadership actively defended sound doctrine (Acts 15, cf. Gal. 1-2). The foundational doctrine of justification by faith alone was first defended in the New Testament church by Christian leaders from Antioch of Syria.
Mission Church Characteristics
Now consider the entire history of the church in Antioch. What is one of the main themes of the church’s activity? You have probably already noticed the pattern: the Antioch church is a missionary church. All of their activity is related to mission activity.
Do we want to be missionary churches? Then we must be like the church in Antioch. Do not expect all of these activities to be found in every church — the New Testament gives examples of a diverse variety of different churches in different areas with different needs and problems. But all missionary churches will share similar characteristics. Allow me to describe five of these basic characteristics:
First, missionary churches earnestly pray for missions. Consider the activity of Antioch’s leaders in Acts 13:2-3: “As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted” they were instructed by the Holy Spirit to send out missionaries. “And when they had fasted and prayed,” they obeyed the Spirit’s instruction. Prayer and fasting were common activities in the New Testament church (Acts 2:42; 14:23). Additionally, earnest prayer had come directly before great outpourings of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14; 4:31).
Prayer and missions are inseparable! God is sovereign; He chooses when and where He will work. Yet God often chooses to work in response to our prayers. Prayer is the most necessary and the most powerful spiritual weapon we can use. In many of his letters, Paul passionately begs his readers to pray for him. He had learned the vital importance of earnest prayer.
What should we pray for? We pray that the Word of the God may grow and increase. We pray that God’s kingdom will come. We pray for the gathering and growth of Christ’s church. We are commanded to earnestly pray for missions.
Second, missionary churches are filled with a mission spirit. Why did the believers begin speaking to people from other ethnic groups? Because sharing the gospel of Christ was more important to them than cultural norms. The love of Christ constrained them to overcome the fear of becoming unclean and the pride of false superiority.
Why did the church send money to Jerusalem? Because a desire for the well-being of God’s global church was more important to them than their own riches. The news of unknown believers who suffered in poverty and persecution was enough to open their hearts and their checkbooks. Why were the church leaders sent out to other places? Because they earnestly desired to share their spiritual heritage with all nations and ethnic groups.
What ultimately motivated each ministry of the Antioch church? Remember, the hand of the Lord was with the believers in Antioch (Acts 11:20). The mission spirit of the Antioch church was the result of being filled with the Spirit of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit sovereignly chose to bless their work as they selflessly gave themselves for others.
The abiding presence of God’s Spirit and a spirit of mission are first evident in a church’s prayers, but there must be more than this. A mission spirit must permeate every activity of ministry: the prayers, the preaching, the teaching, the outreach. The lifestyle of each church and every member should display this self-giving spirit of mission.
Third, missionary churches have mission-minded leadership and vision. Barnabas was a visionary team leader. He encouraged cross-cultural evangelism; he assembled a local leadership team that was committed to ministry and mission; he trained the church with a view to long-term ministry. The church also had a vision for God’s global church: they sent their best leaders to continue the work in other locations.
A vision for mission is also a gift of God. Certainly this should be a constant prayer request, since who of us can claim to be filled with undistracted vision for God’s cause and kingdom? As we pray for this gift, let us direct our gaze to the Author and Finisher of our faith who denied Himself in order to seek and save the lost (Heb. 12:2-3).
Fourth, missionary churches are engaged in mission activity. Little more needs to be said about the church’s activity. They were busy with local evangelism; they proclaimed the gospel to their pagan neighbors; they sent out missionaries. Note well, however, that mission activity and church ministry continued together in parallel without any apparent conflicts. The inward-facing and outward-facing ministries of the church must always work in parallel. Nor should one ever be emphasized above the other.
Consider the ministries of your own church: is there a balance, or does one area receive a majority of the collective time and resources? If there is imbalance, perhaps you — together with others in your church — should focus your time and resources on the area of need.
Fifth, missionary churches are united in worship and mission. Unity in Christ was displayed in all their activities (except for the later disagreement between Barnabas and Paul, Acts 15:36ff). There was fellowship within the church (Acts 11:26) and fellowship of the church with their missionaries (Acts 14:28).
Unity was even maintained when error arose over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Notice how the entire church — the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem together with the Antioch church leaders — were united in their defense of sound doctrine while still allowing a diversity of cultural practices (Acts 15). The Antioch Christians rejoiced together in this unity (Acts 15:31).
Having considered the missionary activity of the Antioch church, we as Christians and churches need to ask ourselves a few questions. Allow me to suggest three important questions.
First, are we willing to be a missionary church like the church in Antioch? This means reaching out to those who are not like us. This means overcoming cultural barriers. This means giving time and money to needs outside of our church community and denomination. This means looking beyond the borders of our own families and churches, seeking the welfare of God’s global church. Are we willing?
Second, are we working to promote God’s cause and kingdom? Most believers are not called to proclaim the Word in an official capacity within the church. All Christian believers, however, are called to evangelize the Word with their lips and life. Jesus wants us to confess His name before men (Matt. 10:32-33). The Apostle Paul says that our lives are to be “read of all men” as “the epistle of Christ” (2 Cor. 3:1-3). Though we so often fail in our duty, we must continue to strive to fulfill our responsibility as believers.
Third, are we praying for the Lord’s blessing on the ministries of our church? Remember, success is not measured by numerical results; it is measured by divine approval and blessings. We must be praying before, during, and after our work. Our ministry must be saturated with prayer. Conversion is the sovereign work of the Spirit. Yet, God has promised to bless the use of the means — this is why we must pray in faith.
When we pray for God’s blessing on our Christian witness, we must believe that God can and will give that blessing in His time. The promises of Scripture should give us incentive to continue praying. Moreover, the precedent of New Testament church in Antioch should motivate and strengthen our faithful obedience. We work and pray trusting in a sovereign God. Our duty is only to earnestly pray and to faithfully evangelize; God will work the desired outcome.
The church in Antioch was busy with many forms of ministry — we also should be busy doing the Lord’s work. Will the Lord approve of our obedience if we follow Antioch’s example in faith and with prayer? Yes, God will certainly approve when we seek to use the grace He has given. Will God work conversion in the hearts of those to whom we minister? Maybe, but He remains sovereign. We do not know if God will choose to bless us in this way. Will God, however, approve of our disobedience or our failure to share the rich heritage we have been given? Absolutely not! God desires obedient love. God may choose to work around us or without us, but He will not bless us if we hoard His heritage and hide His Word. We should not sinfully limit God by our lack of activity and prayer.
“Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save” (Isa. 59:1). The hand of the Lord is still at work, unhindered in the world. He is still bringing the Word to idol worshippers and God-haters. He is still working sovereign revivals through faithful men and women in His church. He is still sending His servants out into the world to preach the gospel of Christ. Let us pray that God will use us to gather lost sinners to Himself. Let us pray that all of our churches become and remain missionary churches like the church in Antioch.