A multicultural church—Acts 13:1-3

The church in Antioch spearheaded the mission to the rest of the world beyond Judea. Nearly all Christians today, and certainly all Gentile Christians, have spiritual roots in this church in Syria. Apart from this mission, the church could have been stillborn in the first century, had the Holy Spirit allowed such a thing to happen.

But the Antioch church’s mission began as an accident—or better yet, simply grew naturally. Once it began, however, the church became intentional about carrying out the task further.

Some of the first followers of Jesus were apparently ready to wait for God’s kingdom in Jerusalem—until Saul of Tarsus began persecuting the church there (Acts 8:3). Then the believers from there were scattered (8:4), and the Greek-speaking, immigrant Jewish believers in Jerusalem scattered to other places where they could speak Greek. Although rural Syria spoke Aramaic, the dominant language in cosmopolitan Antioch was Greek.

Eager to share their experience with others, these scattered, bicultural believers became unintentional missionaries (11:19-20). International migrations today often spread the gospel also. In some Western nations where traditional Christianity has been on the decline, for example, African, Asian and Latino/a Christians are growing new, evangelizing churches.

Unintentional missionaries—Christians scattered due to persecution but sharing Christ where they traveled—started the first house-churches in Antioch (Acts 11:19). These first Antioch Christians, living and working among Gentiles as well as Jews, began sharing the gospel with Gentiles (Acts 11:20). (The likeliest Greek reading of 11:20 speaks of “Hellenists,” a term used earlier for Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem in 6:1. Here, however, Hellenist Gentiles were in view—Greek-speaking Syrians.) Thus it was not surprising that they would eventually consider evangelizing Gentiles elsewhere. In fact, they embraced among them a former leader of the persecution that scattered them to begin with: Saul of Tarsus (Paul), who now had a call to evangelize the Gentiles (Acts 11:26).

Antioch was the major cosmopolitan center of the eastern Roman Empire, attracting a wide range of people from various parts of the Empire. Antioch’s various residents, already experiencing geographic and cultural transition, often tended to be more open to new ideas than those who had remained for a long time in their traditional location. Ministering to such a wide range of immigrants, the leaders of the Antioch church reflected similar diversity among themselves.

The leaders of the church were prophets and teachers (Acts 13:1). (Some think that the first three names, including Barnabas, were prophets, and the last two were teachers; but Barnabas also taught, according to 11:26. Probably all had both gifts, although they may have varied in their emphases.) Some of these leaders presumably came from Jerusalem (11:27), including Barnabas (11:22). Most, however, at least had significant cross-cultural backgrounds. For example, Barnabas, though from Jerusalem most recently, was originally from Cyprus (4:36); he probably had ties with some of the Cypriotes who helped evangelize Antioch initially (11:20).

Besides Barnabas, the leadership team included Simeon called “Niger” (13:1). Simeon was a common Jewish name, and “Niger” a common Roman name, which could suggest that he was a Jewish Roman citizen like Paul. But in this case, the expression “who was called Niger” differs from the other names in the list, perhaps suggesting a nickname. In this case, it would be meant descriptively: “Simeon the Dark” or “Simeon the Black,” observing his dark complexion, perhaps from northern Africa.

Less debatably, Lucius was explicitly from Cyrene in North Africa (13:1), and thus was perhaps one of the original founders of the Antioch church (11:20). Cyrene was in an area earlier settled by Phoenicians, with indigenous North African inhabitants and many Greek and Jewish settlers (sometimes estimated at one-third each). The culture included a mix of these various elements. “Lucius” was a common Greek name, but non-Greeks also used Greek names in places where Greek was spoken. Many non-Jews converted to Judaism, so we do not know the ethnic background of Lucius’s ancestors.

Between Lucius from North Africa and Simeon the Dark one may find significant African representation in leadership in this Greco-Asian church. (Greeks and Romans considered both Judea and larger Syria to be in Asia, so the entire leadership team likely comes from Asia and Africa. Europeans and their descendants should not feel left out, however, since in Acts Paul is eager to preach in Rome, and Romans 15 shows that he also wanted to evangelize Spain.)

Perhaps of special interest to many African-American Christians, the list may also include those descended from slaves. That Manaen was “brought up with” Herod Antipas could mean that he was a playmate from another noble family, but it could also suggest that he was a family servant. In that culture (as opposed to U.S. history) an aristocratic family’s servant could wield great social power and wealth, whether before or after being freed. Often aristocrat boys freed their servant playmates when both grew up, providing them powerful positions.

In Manaen’s case, this is merely a possibility. In Saul’s (Paul’s) case, however, it is likely. A majority of Jews who were Roman citizens were so because their ancestors had once been slaves in Rome. (In the first century BCE, Rome enslaved many Judeans and brought them to Rome.) Once a Roman citizen freed a slave under certain conditions, that slave became a Roman citizen, as did the slaves’ descendants.

Saul of Tarsus was probably one of the Cilicians who belonged to the synagogue of Freedpersons in Acts 6:9. The term translated Freedpersons there designates those freed by Romans, hence signifying this synagogue as a prestigious institution in Jerusalem—a congregation started by Jewish Roman citizens. Acts 6:9 notes that this synagogue of Freedpersons included Jewish people from various locations (including Cilicia, where Tarsus was, and where Saul’s ancestors may have migrated from Rome). It thus seems likely that Paul was a Roman citizen (16:37) because, several generations earlier, his ancestors were slaves in Rome.

In any case, this list of leaders shows a great diversity of backgrounds. What matters more than all the differences, though, is what binds them together. These leaders worship God, praying and fasting, and are ready to hear His call when He speaks (Acts 13:2). Whatever our diverse backgrounds on other points, the one God we serve unites us by his Spirit. This diverse, cosmopolitan church, with its diverse leadership team, birthed a vision that Jesus had already imparted in Acts 1:8. Empowered by the Spirit, two emissaries from this church were preparing to reach the world!

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