First there was one church, launched in Jerusalem and expanded until it stretched across the ancient land of Israel (Ac 9:31). Then a second church was founded in the city of Antioch in the land of Syria: an independent church of Jew and Gentile with a distinctive character (Ac 11:26) but also with a love for their brothers in Palestine (Ac 11:29). And this church would be the starting point for a grand, new adventure in Christ’s kingdom: mission!
After delivering a gift to Jerusalem, Barnabas and Saul return to Antioch with John Mark (v25) – a young helper whose mother’s home provided a based for the Judean church (Ac 12:12) and who was probably Barnabas’ cousin (Co 4:10). The two men resume their leadership of this local church, working alongside three others: Simeon, Lucius and Manaen (v1). Together they bring the knowledge of Christ to the people through prophecy and teaching. The team are a diverse group from various places around the Mediterranean sea. Churches should unite folk of all kinds and backgrounds in just this way. Antioch was Jew and Gentile in its membership, and that variety was reflected in its leadership.
However, the leaders are all male. This follows the example of Christ who appointed 12 men to head up his renewed Israel (Lk 6:13-16). Women have played many roles in Jesus’ kingdom up until this moment but he maintained male leadership throughout. This links to God’s design of marriage in which Adam was made first and then Eve came alongside, as an equal (Ge 1:27; Ga 3:28), to help (Ge 2:18). Although temporary (Mt 22:30) and a model of a greater reality (Ep 5:29-32), the marital structure is very important for life in this world. Hence Jesus, though single himself and positive about singleness (Mt 19:12), protected marriage strongly among his people (Mt 19:9). And by only appointing men as leaders, he ensured that his church would never infringe the marriage design. The church in Antioch works the same way and Saul will use this approach in the churches he will later plant (1Co 14:32-35; Ti 1:6). Today, churches should continue to follow the Saviour’s example and take care to uphold marriages, in every way we can.
But what of the Antioch church’s life? Well, they are certainly a place of worship (v2). Churches exist to bring glory to God upon the earth, focussing upon him and giving to him service. Such worship is a striking fulfilment of Jesus’ words in Samaria, when he explained to a local woman that God would, in the future, be worshipped in Spirit and in truth in many places (Jo 4:21-24). They are also actively fasting, though it’s not clear why. Possibly they are fasting because of the famine which is coming or maybe because they feel the weight of what God is doing among them. There are certainly to be times when a church will fast (Mt 6:16) alongside prayer to express to God the deep concerns we have. And here there are important developments afoot, since the Holy Spirit then directs the church to commission Barnabas and Saul as a church planting team. What has happened in Antioch with this church is now to be repeated in many other places, and so they authorise the duo for such work by laying hands on them (v3). This expresses how the Holy Spirit works through the church, to bring about the Lord’s purposes. Yes, the pair already knew something of the Lord’s future plans (v2) and it’s clearly the Spirit who wants them to go (v4). Yet, the team is also sent out by the church, for this is where the Spirit dwells.
So in all this we see the work of ‘mission’. To define it simply: it is the sending off of Christian workers to set up new churches in places where there are none. Christians travel for many good reasons, of course. But it is important that this mission takes place too, so that Christ’s kingdom stretches into all the world. So churches must, with the wisdom given them by God, identify those working amongst them who are gifted for mission elsewhere, and them send them out in teams to do it. Not that such missionaries will arise in all churches, of course, because each church has different tasks for the Lord. But all can support those who have gone.