In our recent blog series we have been examining the response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic. We began with a look at several areas where the virus has left us exposed, personally, professionally, and pastorally. Our focus from that initial post has been on what we are calling the general evangelical response to the virus. By in large, it appears as though the virus left most of us scrambling for how to respond and the majority attempting to regain some semblance of the status quo. With that, we’ve asked three primary questions: Is the building necessary? Does a gathering need to have staff pastors and/or ministers present to be considered an official “church” gathering? What are the essential parts of a church “service”? It is this second question that we are attempting to answer now in Part 2, which continues with our survey of leadership development in the Book of Acts that we’ve divided into three primary sections: Acts 1:15 – 11:18; 11:19 – 15:35; 15:36 – 20:38.
In our last post, we saw how the primary emphasis from our first section of Acts seemed to be upon Peter and his evangelistic ministry throughout Jerusalem. This focus began in chapter 1 with Peter standing up among the brothers and continued through chapter 11, despite some interludes in chapters 6&7 and 8&9. In this section, we looked somewhat closely at the passage from Acts 6 which highlighted the addition of leaders to help the twelve in their mission of proclamation and distribution. One critical point that I inadvertently left out was that these seven servant helpers were chosen by the congregation, an important fact that we will see repeated. From there we concluded with a brief mention of the popular view (mostly from Catholics) that Peter was the chief authority during the first century, a view that leads some to considering him as the first pope. As we briefly concluded, this was not the case at all, but is especially seen as we examine chapter 11 and subsequently chapter 15 of Acts. With that, we turn now to our second section of leadership development, now from Acts 11:19 to 15:35.
This section may be more informative for our objective here as the gospel spreads and gatherings multiply. As we open up chapter 11 of Acts, we ought to get our bearings in the book, realizing that after Stephen’s sermon and subsequent stoning (Acts 7), there was great persecution of believers in Jerusalem which led to their scattering (Acts 8). From there, we see the gospel advancing from Jerusalem throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1), and the curious calling and appointment of the once persecutor of Christ’s church, Saul (9:1-31), before picking back up with the ministry of Peter, leading to the vision he received on Gentile inclusion. Now, in Acts 11, we find Peter giving an explanation of his vision and the gentile inclusion apparently to some believers in Jerusalem of the “circumcision party”, yet notice how they criticize and question Peter, the aforementioned spokesman. Here, he does not appeal to a status as spokesman, nor to apostolic authority, or a position, rather he addresses and answers their criticisms by appealing to the word of God which he had received, resulting in their giving glory to God. With the exception of a speech at the council in Acts 15, this effectively ends the emphasis on Peter and begins a transition period eventually culminating in the ministry of Paul, to the Gentiles.
Beginning in Acts 11:19, which is the continuation of Acts 8:1 (and 8:4) we find those who were scattered after the persecution of Stephen now preaching the word, which included more than the original 11 apostles, see Acts 11:20. Again, as a reminder from our last post, in addition to the twelve preaching throughout Jerusalem, we found Stephen preaching the gospel, Phillip preaching and evangelizing, and now those who have fled persecution in Jerusalem preaching the gospel. Arriving at Antioch (Syria), these men from Cyprus and Cyrene had preached the gospel, leading to the salvation of souls, which peaked interest from the church in Jerusalem, who then sent Barnabas to investigate.
To this point, all we know about Barnabas, the son of encouragement, has been his willingness to sell his land and bring the proceeds to the apostles (Acts 5) then his service as a mediator between Saul (Paul) and the apostles at Jerusalem (Acts 9). Now we read of his commission to examine the validity of the message and its reception in Antioch. Though Luke does refer to Barnabas at times as an apostle (Acts 14:14), it may be that he maintained the distinction between Barnabas (and others) as an apostle and the twelve. We may be reminded that apostle means messenger, as perhaps opposed to disciple, which means learner. This leads us to a summary statement regarding the believers at Antioch, “So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 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
Here, we find our first clear example of apostolic presence with a gathered body of believers over a consistent period of time, yet it would be inappropriate to assume Barnabas and Saul were staff pastors at the First Church of Antioch. However, they were certainly involved in the teaching of disciples there, as they built up the body of believers. At the conclusion of chapter 11, we find an interesting narrative involving prophets from Jerusalem arriving at Antioch who, by the Spirit, warn of a great famine, “So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.” Acts 11:30 This verse is significant for our purposes for multiple reasons. First, the arrival of prophets from Jerusalem who are given opportunity to share their message. It doesn’t appear that Barnabas and Saul had a stranglehold on the “pulpit”. Second, it is the disciples at Antioch who determined to send relief and to do so by Barnabas and Saul. Presumably, this makes it evident that there is not a clerical hierarchy, rather there is clear and decisive congregationalism. It was their decision to take up some kind of collection and then to send it by way of Barnabas and Saul. Third, this is the first mention, in a Christian sense, of elders. The believers in Antioch send their relief package to the elders of the Jerusalem church. Why not to Peter or one of the other apostles? Up to this point in all four of the Gospels and in Acts itself, elders has been used in the Jewish sense. Now, without any noticeable change in meaning, the same Greek word, presbuteros, is used again. A natural question should be, would Luke’s original audience have reinterpreted elders to mean something different than what they had always known the meaning and use of the term to be? Probably not, though it would appear that the context for them has now changed from the Jewish to the Jewish Christian, if we may make that distinction.
In the next post, we will focus on this latest leadership development, the elders, from here in chapter 11, their appointment in Acts 14, and their role in the informative chapter 15.
In this series: