Chapter 5: The Antiochene Mission
Christendom is indebted to the church at Antioch for conceiving of world missions as an obligation of the gospel and for devising the grand missionary strategy that gradually
would embrace the world. To be sure, the church is beholden to Peter for first witnessing for Christ to a Roman household low and therefore breaking the barrier between Jew and gentile.
But it was in Antioch, where Christianity got its name, that the initiative was taken by a local congregation to support a missionary enterprise to peoples beyond its own locale. Heretofore the gospel had spread almost accidentally -- that is, as a result of Christians moving to different parts of the country to escape persecution or migrating for business purposes, always carrying their faith with them. But due to the Antiochene resolve, the propagation of the gospel becomes a deliberate policy of the church.
Consequently, the book of Acts exemplifies a different literary purpose after chapter 12. It tells the story of the faith from a new perspective with the beginning of chapter 13. The author's interest is now primarily with the conversion of the gentiles. Luke focuses the light of history on Paul, not on Peter. Though his book is still the Gospel of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit works through the missionary activity of Paul and his associates.
The First Missionary Journey (13:1-14:28)
The church in Antioch was charismatic. It sought the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that guidance came as a result of fasting and prayer and from the lips of designated teachers and prophets, five of whom Luke names. Barnabas is the first one listed to indicate his preeminence, and Saul is the last. Simeon and Lucius were both from Cyrene. Simeon bears also the name Niger, which probably indicates that he was black. We know nothing more of Lucius. Manaen had been prominent in the secular world as a companion of Herod the tetrarch; most commentators assume this to have been Herod Antipas. If so, Manaen was a young man in Herod's court during the ministry of Jesus and probably witnessed the beheading of John the Baptist.
As a result of the advice of these five individuals, the Antiochene church chose Barnabas and Saul to be its first missionaries. Just as we still do today, the people of the church laid hands on them and thereby consecrated them as missionaries. This was an act of churchly blessing. Since Barnabas was in charge of the mission, they went first to Cyprus, for he was a Cypriot. Barnabas's nephew, young John Mark, accompanied them.
Their stay in Cyprus seems to have been of short duration. They landed at Salamis, preached to the Jews in the synagogues there, presumably with no noticeable results, and traveled to Paphos, the Roman capital of the island. There their mission began to succeed, for they won the attention and respect of the Roman ruler of the island, Sergius Paulus, whose heart was hungry for the word of God.
Their means of access to him was strange and even frightening. They had been obstructed in their mission by a sorcerer named Bar-Jesus nicknamed Elymas, which means "magician." Saul looked Elymas straight in the eyes and either hypnotized him so that he thought he was blind or else blinded him outright, for he could not see how to walk and had to be led away. The blindness was only temporary and wore away after Barnabas and Saul accomplished their purpose.
At this point in his narrative, Luke ceases to call Barnabas's companion by his Jewish name "Saul" and starts calling him by his Roman name "Paul," thus anticipating his mission to the gentiles (13:9). From that point, Paul appears to have been the chief spokesman for the mission. Presumably he takes over the leadership of the enterprise from Barnabas. If so, it must have been by Barnabas's consent in that he recognized Paul to be better at evangelism than he. The two missionaries won Sergius Paulus to the faith, for Luke tells us he believed the doctrine of the Lord.
Cyprus is 140 miles long and 60 miles wide, about the size of ancient Israel. Evidently the missionaries felt they had finished there, for from Paphos they sailed to the coast of what is today Turkey and what was then Pamphylia. The port at which they landed was Perga. Apparently John Mark, Barnabas's nephew, had not wanted to leave Cyprus so soon, or else had not wanted to make the journey at all; he deserted the mission at Perga and returned to Jerusalem.
Perga in Pamphylia was only the gateway for Paul and Barnabas to the interior. They proceeded immediately to Pisidian Antioch where they attended the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was their custom. After the reading of the law and the prophets, the ruler of the synagogue asked them if they had anything to say. This request was not unusual in that day. The synagogue was not like the Temple, with its sacrifices and ceremonial rites. Worship in the synagogue was far less formal. Anyone who was capable of doing so could be invited by the person in charge of the service to expatiate on the scripture readings for the day.
Paul, who had studied under Gamaliel in Jerusalem, was eminently qualified to do so. We do not know what the lessons for that sabbath were, but we do know what Paul said, for Luke gives us a full account of his message. Paul focuses on the rule of David and David's special place in God's affections. He then makes the claim that Jesus, a direct descendant of David, is the fulfillment of God's promise to Israel to send a Savior.
Immediately Paul and Barnabas collected from the congregation a group of followers. The officials of the synagogue were at first undecided in their reaction to Paul, but they permitted him to speak again on the next sabbath. However, when practically the entire city turned out to hear him and he was able to make converts while they were not, they became intensely jealous of him and began to stir up so much opposition to him and Barnabas that they were expelled from Pisidian Antioch.
They fared little better in Iconium. That city divided almost evenly over them, half supporting them and the other half bitterly opposing them. But when overtures were made to the rulers of the city for permission to stone them, Paul and Barnabas fled to Lystra and Derbe.
At Lystra, Paul not only preached effectively, but he performed a miracle, which had astonishing results. As Paul preached, there was a man listening who had been lame in his feet since birth and was unable to walk. Paul noticed the intensity with which the man listened, so he turned to him and commanded him to walk. The cure of the lame man produced a sensation among the gentiles of the city.
Devotees of Roman deities that the Romans had borrowed from the Greeks, the gentiles thought Paul and Barnabas were gods masquerading as men. Barnabas was the silent partner of the two, but was tall and stately in appearance; Paul did all the talking, but was smaller and less prepossessing than his companion. Thus, they took Barnabas to be Jupiter, the supreme god, and Paul to be Mercury, the messenger and spokesman of the gods. There was a temple to Jupiter in Lystra, and its priest fell in with the populace, bringing with them garlands and oxen to make sacrifice to Barnabas and his companion Paul, believing as they did that they were Jupiter in and Mercury. As we know from mythology, it was the habit of Jupiter to wander the earth in the form of man, animal, or bird and thereby make contact with human beings. Paul and Barnabas disclaimed for themselves any form of divinity, protesting that they were just as human as their would-be worshipers.
The people's disappointment over this admission and their mistake made them vulnerable to the accusations against Paul and Barnabas from Jews who came from Iconium and Antioch, so they stoned Paul and left him for dead. Nonetheless, when Paul recovered, he and Barnabas had the courage not only to proceed to Derbe to preach the gospel there, but to retrace their steps to Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch, confirming the converts they had made in those cities in the faith and establishing local congregations therein. They appointed elders -- that is, local pastors to care for each congregation.
When the Jews rejected Paul and Barnabas at Pisidian Antioch, Paul turned away from the recalcitrant Jews to preach the gospel to the more receptive gentiles.
The two returned via Perga, where they preached the gospel, and Attalia to Antioch to report on their first missionary journey.
The Gentile Problem and Its Solution (15:1-35)
Next to the description of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts, this passage is the most important in the entire book, for what takes place here opens up for the church its largest field for expansion and makes possible the eventual winning of the Roman Empire to Christianity. Itdelineates an historical watershed: the transformation of Christianity from a small Jewish sect into an independent and autonomous church.
After the return of Paul and Barnabas from their missionary journey together, certain men from Jerusalem arrived in Antioch and insisted that circumcision is essential to Christian salvation, thus making the grace of God through Jesus Christ subsidiary to the Mosaic law and making the Savior himself dependent on Moses. To settle the matter, the church at Antioch sent a delegation, headed by Paul and Barnabas, to the mother church in Jerusalem to ascertain from the apostles and elders the position of the church in the matter.
Though this is a disputed issue in New Testament historiography, it is my opinion that this trip was Paul's third visit to Jerusalem after his conversion and subsequent to the arresting argumentation and debate Paul recounts in Galatians 2:1-10. For one thing, the meeting described in Galatians was a private one between Paul and Peter, John, and the Lord's brother, James (Gal. 2:2, 9), while this one was a public meeting between Paul and the Jerusalem congregation. After the issue was decided by this public Jerusalem Conference, it would have been well nigh impossible for James to take the restrictive Jewish attitude he did toward the Christian gentiles in Antioch (Gal. 2:12) and for his emissaries to frighten Peter to the extent that he withdrew from the table with gentiles and caused even Barnabas to do the same (Gal.2:11-15).
These events described in Galatians had to occur before the adjudication of this dispute by the Jerusalem Conference, and in all probability did occur before Paul and Barnabas made their missionary journey. If this was the case, it would have allowed ample time for James to change his mind and Peter to support publicly what he had already done privately, so that both of them were able to take the progressive stands they did at the Jerusalem Conference.
The real problem lies at the point of the fourteen years that Paul says elapsed between the visit he made to Jerusalem after his conversion and the time he argued privately with Peter, John, and James. His second visit to Jerusalem, with the collection taken in Antioch for the brethren in Jerusalem in anticipation of the famine (Acts 11:27-30), which I believe was the time of his private disputation as described in Galatians 2:1-10, is a rather long span of time to allow
between his first and second visits. In fact, it is too long to correspond with the date of Herod Agrippa's death, by means of which we are able on the basis of Luke's information to date his second visit. Chronologically considered, the events described in Galatians 2:1-10 fit perfectly with this third visit, and traditionally Luke's account of the Jerusalem Conference and Paul's account of his meeting with the two apostles and James, the Lord's brother, in Galatians describe the same event.
Be that as it may, Paul (according to Luke) plays little part in the decision of the Jerusalem Conference. All he and Barnabas do is describe what happened in regard to the gentiles on their missionary journey. Peter is the first to respond and contend, on the basis of his experience in the conversion of Cornelius, that God makes no difference between Jews and gentiles but gives the Holy Spirit equally to both when they accept God's grace through the Lord Jesus Christ.
James lends his masterful support as a conservative Jewish Christian to the same position by fortifying it with reference to the prophet Amos, who says that the Lord will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down, and will gather therein all the gentiles (James in Acts) substitutes "Gentiles" for Amos's "heathen") who are called by God's name (Amos 9:11-12). The fact that James quotes Amos from the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew scripture rather than the Hebrew would indicate that Luke in recalling James's speech used the Greek text with which he was familiar. It is not likely that James could have read Greek or ever have seen the Septuagint version, which was translated from Hebrew into Greek in Alexandria, Egypt.
The decision reached was that gentiles are equal in all religious matters to Jews, for both are alike dependent on the grace of God in Jesus Christ for salvation. The Mosaic law alone is no more sufficient for Jewish Christians than it is for gentile Christians. The only caveat to the decision was that gentiles restrain from eating things strangled or meat with blood left in it. This was no doubt to accommodate Jews who adhered strictly to the Mosaic dietary prescriptions so that they might conveniently eat with gentile Christians. Evidently, Paul was willing to accede to this, as he did not want to do anything that would needlessly cause offense (Rom~ 14: l~21; I Cor. 10:23-33). Naturally, the moral law had to be upheld by gentiles just as much as by Jews, so that the prohibitions against idolatry and fornication belong to the teachings of Jesus as well as the law of Moses.
A formal letter was drawn up to announce the decision of the Jerusalem church and was sent back to Antioch by two emissaries, Judas Barsabbas and Silas, both prophets, along with Paul and Barnabas, beloved by the church because they had risked their lives for Jesus Christ. The church had been apprised of Paul's stoning at Lystra and of his and Barnabas's going back over hostile territory on that first missionary journey, thereby endangering their lives. The formal letter contained the restriction of eating any food offered to idols-that is, meat put on the market by pagan priests after they had used it in their sacrifices. This could have been a further concession to the tender feelings of Jewish Christians, but it might well have been just as much a precaution to gentile Christians against making any contacts with pagan worship in any form.
After Judas and Silas had fulfilled their mission in Antioch, the Antiochene church gave them permission to leave, but Silas chose to remain.
The Separation of Paul and Barnabas (15:3-16:7)
Paul proposed to Barnabas, after they had spent some time in Antioch, that they return to all the cities they had evangelized during their first missionary journey. Barnabas readily consented. But when they began to make arrangements for the trip, they had a disagreement about whether
John Mark should accompany them. Barnabas insisted that they take him. Paul refused. Barnabas, being a generous and kindly disposed person, wanted to give young Mark a second chance. Paul, concerned only for the success of the enterprise, did not want to risk a second defection from Mark. Mark was kin to Barnabas; and though Barnabas was fond of Paul, the two men separated over this issue.
Barnabas and Mark sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas to accompany him, and they departed north through Syria and Cilicia, which Paul had evangelized when he had returned to Tarsus from Damascus before Barnabas went to fetch him for work in Antioch. From Cilicia, they passed through a sharp and treacherous defile in the mountains known as the Cilician Gates into southern Galatia. This route, in contrast to the route from Perga through Pisidian Antioch, brought them first to Derbe and from there to Lystra.
There lived in Lystra with his mother and grandmother, both Jewish Christians, a young convert to Christianity named Timothy, whose father was a gentile. Presumably Paul had converted all three of them on his first missionary journey. Now he wanted Timothy as his traveling companion. In mixed marriages between Jews and gentiles, the Jews expected the offspring to be reared as Jews and to keep all the prescriptions of the Hebrew law. Timothy, probably because of objections from his father, had never been circumcised. Therefore, he was considered illegitimate by the Jews. They disdained him as a bastard, though he was an honorable man and highly respected in Lystra and even Iconium. To satisfy Jewish prejudice, Paul circumcised him, even though at the time he publicized the edict of the church in Jerusalem regarding gentiles.
Paul took Timothy with him and Silas, and after visiting all the churches in the region, they went down into Mysia to the coast and would have gone north into Bithynia, but the Holy Spirit prevented them.
Questions For Reflection and Study
1. How might the gospel still spread "accidentally" today? In what ways do you spread it "accidentally"?
2. How is the gospel deliberately propagated today? Do you feel that the missionary imperative is as important today as it was to the early church? Which is more comfortable for you, spreading the gospel accidentally or deliberately, or are you equally comfortable with both? In what ways are the missionary efforts of the early church and those of the modern church different? In what ways are they similar?
3. According to Acts, how was the church at Antioch charismatic? Is this what we understand as charismatic today? Name some similarities and some differences between the church at Antioch and your church. Are those similarities/differences important? Why or why not?
4. Row does the contemporary church seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit? How do you? Who are the teachers and prophets in today's church? in your church? Are they as clearly recognizable as they were to the Antioch church? How do we know the teachers and prophets? Are we ever mistaken?
5. The laying on of hands is mentioned a number of times in Acts and through the scriptures as a whole. What meaning did this act symbolize for the early Christians? What meaning does it have for modern Christians? for you personally? Is it as prominent today as it was in the first century? Why do you think this is so?
6. At Cyprus, Paul apparently took over the leadership of the missionary enterprise from Barnabas, presumably with Barnabas's consent. What do you think your reaction would be if you were replaced as the head of an important task? How would your reaction be similar to or different from that of Barnabas?
7 John Mark, Barnabas's nephew, deserted the mission at Perga and returned to Jerusalem. Have you ever reluctantly taken part in church work? What was the result? Have you ever had to give up for some reason? How did you feel about it? How did others react to your decision? What did you learn from your experience?
8. If you were invited to speak to others on the scripture, with which portions would you be qualified or most comfortable? In what areas would you like to be more prepared?
9. Do you ever become jealous of those whose abilities seem to exceed yours? How do you usually relate to such people? What attitude do you think is most Christian?
10. In Iconium, the citizens were divided over the message of Paul and Barnabas. In what areas or over what issues does Christianity divide people today?
11. The controversy over circumcision threatened to impede the spread of Christianity among the gentiles. Name some things that Christians hold tightly to today that might exclude others from Christian fellowship. What attitudes might exclude others in your church? What are some of your personal attitudes that might be exclusive?
12. The early Christians were careful to avoid causing offense to others needlessly. Are modern Christians as sensitive? In what areas might we need improvement?
13. When Barnabas insisted on allowing John Mark to participate in the second missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas parted company. Barnabas wanted to give John Mark a second chance. Paul's main concern was the success of the venture; he considered taking John Mark along to be nsky. Which man do you think was right? Which attitude appears more Christian? What would you have done in this situation? How might you have felt if you were John Mark?
14. Acts relates that the Holy Spirit prevented Paul, Silas, and Timothy from carrying the gospel northward into Bithynia. How is the Holy Spirit's opposition made evident today? Has the Holy Spirit ever prevented you from doing something you had planned to do? How was this apparent to you?