Status Quo: The Gathering – Part 3

Having recently concluded our extended excursus on the nature and development of deacons, which arose from Acts 6, we now return to the final section in our study on Christian gatherings from Acts in light of the on-going response to the COVID pandemic. The goal of this year long study has been to provide help for understanding the nature of Christian gatherings for times of peace, persecution, or pandemic so that we might be more prepared to respond next time (or this time), rather than shuttering doors and resorting to ‘virtual gatherings.’

We left off last time with a look at the third of our five primary passages: Acts 2:1-5; 2:42-47; 4:32-37 as well as additional supporting passages that took us into Acts 6:1-7. While Acts 7-10 is not to be ignored, for our purpose here of focusing on the gatherings of believers we will begin this post with a look at Acts 11:25-26. Recall that in addition to our primary and supporting passages that we’re examining, the Book of Acts is structured around a series of summary passages. Each summary is designed to call attention to particular events or actions that ‘summarize’ a pattern, recurrence, or simply highlight something significant. We have seen this with summary passages such as Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 (both of which were primary for us); 5:12-16; 6:1-6 as well as Acts 8:1-8, highlighting the persecution by Paul and the preaching ministry of Philip (deaconing); Acts 9:31, the building up and multiplication of believers; and Acts 11:19-21, the spread of the gospel as a result of persecution.

With that brief introduction, we arrive at Acts 11:25-26
25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

Acts 11:25-26
In this supporting passage, we ought simply to note the regular presence and gathering of believers in Antioch. Here, we are told that when they gathered, they were frequently taught by Paul (Saul) and Barnabas. The young believers in Antioch were also referred to as disciples, or learners, who came to be called, Christians. This leads us to briefly mention the passage that follows and the prophets who arrived from Jerusalem and “stood up” to foretell about a famine (Acts 11:27-30). Significant here is that although we are told of the teaching ministry of Saul and Barnabas at Antioch, we are also informed of the presence and opportunity given for prophets to speak. A more formal passage detailing how this might have occurred in an orderly manner is found in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. For now, we will simply mention this passage, as it will require a much more in-depth look later. Finally, from our passage in Acts 11, we need to note the Christian’s response to the prophecy of famine through their willingness to send relief to the believers in Judea. Despite not being in geographic proximity or most likely even knowing them personally, there was a deep and heartfelt bond of love for them and a spirit of cooperation.

Our next supporting passage is found in Acts 12:12-16 with another use of the word gathered (here it is a rare word – synathroizo). On this occasion, the believers are gathered together for the purpose of prayer. It is during their prayers that Peter, the recently released from prison through a divinely orchestrated miracle, shows up and gives testimony and witness to the works that the Lord had performed. After a brief summary in Acts 12:24, “But the word of God increased and multiplied,” we read of Saul and Barnabas’ return to Antioch after delivering relief (deaconing) to Jerusalem. This prepares us for another gathering in Antioch and our fourth primary passage.
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. Acts 13:1-3
Within the context of this passage, there are several key terms and phrases for us to observe. First, and most obviously, is the word ekklesia, translated as church, but simply meaning gathering or assembly. So in the ‘gathering’ at Antioch there were prophets and teachers, who are subsequently identified by name. This is further evidence that the gathering was not officiated by, nor was speaking restricted to, a particular office, rather these men had been identified with the gifts of teaching and prophecy. Likewise, it supports earlier discoveries that a variety of speaking took place within the gatherings.

Next of interest is the term worshiping. In our modern context of church we often hear the phrases worship teams, worship leaders, continue worshiping, come worship with us, etc. The difficulty is: What is worship? Is it just singing? Is there such a thing as a worship team or leader? Is worship the whole series of events on a Sunday morning? How do we know if we’re worshiping?

Here, the term for worship is leitourgeo, or people/public work, from which we get the English word liturgy. It’s meaning however is a bit nuanced and in Greek it doesn’t necessarily carry a religious meaning at all. In fact, it’s original usage was a political term referring to, “the direct discharge of specific services to the body politic.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Vol. 4 pg. 216). In other words it was like a tax or a payment due. In this context though, it seems leitourgeo more likely refers to the prayer of the gathering (and possibly the fasting). As the TDNT points out, this “is the first to attest a transfer of the important OT cultic term to the purely spiritual Christian service of God, even though the reference be only to a small prayer fellowship of leading men.” pg. 226-227 Furthermore, it could be translated as “ministering to the Lord” or “serving the Lord.”

Next we have the setting apart of Barnabas and Saul at the command of the Holy Spirit. This literal separation of the two distinguishes them from the other three men and from those in the church, not in a hierarchical way but in a way that called them to a specific service, similar to what we read in Acts 6. It is important for us to remember that this happened in a gathering of believers and that it was the commissioning of Barnabas and Saul by the others at the direction of the Holy Spirit. It was a Holy Spirit led congregational commissioning. With this, we see fasting, prayer, and laying on of hands symbolizing the commissioning. This entire event culminates in their being sent off.

While the word for sending that is typically used in reference to the apostles (apostello – Matt. 10:5) is not used here, it is nevertheless compelling to consider this as the apostolic commissioning for both Barnabas and Saul. Three pieces of evidence support this: 1. This begins their First Missionary journey 2. They were not referred to as apostles prior to this (Acts 14:14) 3. Subsequent to this commissioning Saul’s name is changed to Paul. This passage, alongside Acts 6 (and others), gives us insight into the decision-making process within the gatherings, most notably that they sought the Lord in prayer and fasting together. With this commissioning in chapter 13 of Acts, it signals a transition for the entire book as the focus shifts to the spread of the gospel through the evangelistic ministry of Paul.

Finally, we arrive two supporting passage found in Acts 14:19-23 and 14:24-28
19 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. Acts 14:19-23
24 Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25 And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, 26 and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. 27 And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they remained no little time with the disciples.

Acts 14:24-28
In the first passage, we gain insight into the ministry of Paul and Barnabas who were commissioned in Antioch earlier. Their mission was to preach the gospel and make disciples, then we find them backtracking (when possible) to strengthen the disciples that they had made. In this particular summary, we find that it was probably a common practice for them to appoint elders in every church (note also: Titus 1:5). Given the pattern, this makes sense as there would have been elapsed time between their original visit and their subsequent visit which would have allowed the disciples to mature somewhat. As we have seen, decision making was again offered up to collective pray and fasting. In the second passage cited above, we find the mention of additional cities in which Paul and Barnabas ministered before returning to their original commissioning city, Antioch. Once home, they gathered the church together for the purpose of giving testimony for all that the Lord had done on their journey.

In this post, we have again seen that the early believers regularly met together for various reasons or purposes; neglecting to meet with other believers was not an option, nor an entertained thought. Then we saw that they met for regular teaching of those variously gifted, giving opportunity to those who had a particular message for the congregation. Next, we saw that in the gathering their were decisions made by the congregation for giving or providing relief (deaconing) for other believers, as well as the commissioning for those called by God for evangelistic missions (sent out) or those who are called to minister within (elders). Fourth, in one of our primary passages, we observed that their gathering together for the purpose of prayer (and fasting) was called worship, despite not having any evidence of singing or preaching as we would consider today. It was in this passage, as well as the next supporting passage that we saw the commissioning’s take place. Finally, we saw the occasion of gathering together for the purpose of giving testimony to detail and share among other believers all that the Lord had been doing. Perhaps this latter experience is the most absent in our gatherings today. Long gone are the days when believers simply gathered together to give testimony, to encourage one another by giving witness to the work of the Lord in each others lives. As a concluding observation, so far in Acts we’ve seen the decisions were not made unilaterally by a select group, quite the contrary as we’ve seen they were made in and by the congregation through corporate prayer and fasting.

In our next post, we’ll dive into perhaps the most detailed passage for the gathering of believers In the New Testament from 1 Corinthians 11-14. Then, subsequent to this, we will return to the Book of Acts and look at the significance of chapter 15 as well as additional supporting passages as we begin to wrap up our study.

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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