Diverse City

If you are a first time visitor tot this blog, thank you. I am reading through the New Testament this summer, and blogging about every day’s reading. Today is day 36, and the reading for today is Acts 13 through Acts 15.

And what I’ve learned so far from a fresh reading in the book of Acts is that every moment is a mission moment.

These three chapters are traditionally called Paul’s first missionary journey. It was the first, but I don’t think he knew how the rest of his life would unfold, or even if there would be more — so I’ve never been comfortable with that phrase. I don’t think Paul had some master plan when he began. He didn’t even have a plan to go to Antioch. It was Barnabas who brought him there, after going to Tarsus to find him.

But it was a mission moment for him, in Antioch. Here are the first few verses of Acts 13.

In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with 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.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus.

Luke wants us to know two things here. The first is the diversity of the Antioch church.

Diversity

Antioch had a diversity of teachers and prophets. We aren’t exactly sure if these men were “leaders,” at least as we would define them, but they ministered the Word of God regularly, and they were very influential. Here they are, as Luke wants us to see them.

  1. Barnabas was a transplant from his native island of Cyprus, where he was probably a copper miner, and probably wealthy. The field he owned in Acts 4:36, wherever it was, gives us a bit of insight into Barnabas. He was wealthy enough to own an entire field, and sell it completely, and probably not feel much of a financial pinch.
  2. Simeon, called Niger, was a black man, from northern Africa. The Greek word for Niger is used nowhere else in the New Testament. Luke wants us to know this man’s skin color.
  3. Lucius of Cyrene was also from Africa. Nothing more is given about him, although through some grammatical wonderworks we can be pretty sure he isn’t the author of Acts, and that he, too, was from northern Africa.
  4. Manaen, at one time, had a close friendship with the Herods, the ruling kings of Judea in the first century. He was politically influential, with “friends in high places.”
  5. Saul was a former Pharisee originally from the city of Tarsus, but raised and educated in Jerusalem. He only accepted Jesus as the Messiah when he was confronted by Jesus on the way to persecute other believers.

In such a cosmopolitan city, the church was a diverse group of people. There is no rhyme or reason here. These men were assembled by the direction of the spirit, and if there was any doubt that the “Gentiles” should be included as believers, this passage should dispel that doubt. They are transplants, politicians, and former (and violent) religious fanatics. And they are all now prophets and teachers.

These believers knew the power of the spirit’s leading. That’s why we find them worshiping and fasting.

Worship and Fasting

In the midst of their worship, which also included fasting, the spirit of God spoke and called both Barnabas and Saul to begin their calling from God. Everything in their lives had been a preparation for this moment.

But it was their worship and fasting that tuned their ears to hear the voice of God here.

Not just their worship.

Which is so challenging to me today. To willingly sacrifice a time of eating to urgently and intensely worship is such an obstacle for many of us. And when we refuse to marry these two disciplines together, we can, effectively, never hear the voice of God.

Note, too, that the spirit called Barnabas and Saul here — not the prophets and teachers of Antioch. This wasn’t a directive from the church in the city. This was a calling from God. After this realization, the prophets and teachers again fasted, and this time prayed, and sent them on their way. The language of “sent them away” literally means to “release them,” as if they no longer could hold them. That image is awesome — no one can hold God’s spirit and will. No one. The prophets and teachers had to let them go.

And whatever temptation we may have to believe that the church in Antioch anointed and ordained them should be immediately forgotten. 13:4 makes it clear that the spirit of God is doing the moving and leading.

Me and You

It is very, very possible that God is leading you in a different direction than your current church family is willing to go. If we fast and worship, we cannot predict where God will lead us. The great tragedy, though, is that many of us fear that leading. We have become so enraptured with the workings of our own church families that we do not want to be portrayed as rebels or renegades, and we refuse to listen.

Or, probably more appropriately, we refuse to fast, while we love to worship.

Be challenged today to hear the spirit of God. Begin a time of fasting and worshiping, to hear God’s voice and leading in your life. You may not like it, but you can rest in the fact that it’s God who is moving you.

And may God raise leaders in our churches that are not mere board members, but who are prophets and teachers, who regularly fast and worship, and who will validate the voice of God in the lives of believers.

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And While the Debate Rages …

Welcome to day 35! We are currently reading and blogging about the New Testament, every day this summer. You can check out my previous posts, and even get a reading schedule, by clicking here. Thanks for join me today.

Today’s reading takes us from Acts 10 through Acts 12.

It’s no surprise that Luke finally takes the gospel to a full-blown Gentile. We’ve been patiently waiting for this moment since the first chapter. But Luke makes the journey interesting for us, showing us the silliness of our own debates. And he does this by walking us on a path.

The Path

First, the spirit of God took the gospel to the Samaritans, whom Jewish people traditionally despised. Even though ancient Samaritans had a considerable claim to the Jewish faith, the Jews didn’t buy those claims. (The Samaritan woman in the gospel of John even knew of the anticipated Messiah.)

From there, the gospel was given to the Ethiopian Eunuch, a man who was sexually mutilated. And while he was a follower of the Hebrew faith, he was still seen as being less than a man. And he was alone.

These, then, were the two conversion stores which lead us to Peter, who was staying in the port city of Joppa.

The City of Profound Decisions

At the end of Acts 9, Peter healed two people in Joppa, which, historically, was incredibly famous for being a port city, used even by King Solomon. In this city, then, Peter stayed with a man Luke calls “Simon the Tanner.”

Simon the tanner has an interest in this story, though. Because of his profession, Simon is constantly in situations that would make him “unclean” by Jewish purity standards.

Peter is on the edge here. Luke wants us to recognize that Peter knew his beliefs were about to undergo a serious reconsideration. For Peter, a devout Hebrew, to willingly stay at a home that would also, by default, make him unclean, is astounding.

But back to Joppa for a moment. Joppa was the very city where Jonah sought refuge from God’s call for him to preach to Nineveh. Twice in God’s sweeping plan of salvation, the coastal city of Joppa is indeed a city of profound decisions.

It was where Jonah decided to catch a boat to sail away from his calling.

And it was where Peter decided to go toward his calling.

But neither were sure of what it was, exactly, that God was calling them to do, because they both were called to ethnically despised people. This little port city was part of two journeys that took God’s servants to groups of people who would have never been considered for inclusion into any plan designed by God.

Peter was greatly criticized for listening to this call. The leaders in the Jerusalem church wondered how he could endanger his identity and status by entering into the home of a Gentile — and eating with him.

And while this debate is happening, Luke decides to introduce us to the city of Antioch, the third largest city in Rome.

An Open-System

It was a metropolis, much bigger than the ethical and ethnical town of Jerusalem. Antioch could be described probably as an “open system,” culturally acceptable to various beliefs and people. Jerusalem was very much a “closed system,” and had great difficulty accepting non-Hebrews.

Antioch, by its nature, had more influence and power and attraction than Jerusalem. It had a population of over half a million people, and it the only city in the ancient world to actually have streetlights along its marble-paved roads. Antioch was a city of wealth and power.

It’s no surprise, then, that both Jews and Greeks had already formed a group of believers in Antioch, before Cornelius received the spirit of God. He wasn’t even the first Gentile, because Gentiles were already being accepted as believers in Antioch, without the discretion and direction of the Jerusalem leaders.

And, for the remainder of the story told in Acts, the Jerusalem church tries, in vain, to play catch-up to what’s already happened in other parts of the Roman Empire.

God Doesn’t Wait On Us

I love this. We believe we have so much power in our decision-making ability.

We believe we hold the power of God in the consent of our opinions.

But time and time and time again, in Acts, we find that God doesn’t wait for our opinions to catch up with his working. The formation of human history is not dependent upon the participation of humanity. God does what he wants.

He asks us to be participants, though. Because the story of Cornelius is really more about Peter than it is about the Gentile soldier.

Peter was the one who needed to be converted. Peter was the one who needed a glimpse into a plan so extreme that it overwhelmed him, and pushed him to the edge. At a city of decisions, Peter was the one with the decision to make. He was on the edge. And God opened his eyes.

We need our eyes opened today! God has brought us to the place of decision. He has placed us in various relationships and moments, and has led us to people who need the grace of God in their lives. But there is no burden for us to “teach” them, because God has already prepared their hearts — just like he prepared Cornelius.

God doesn’t need your abilities. But he does want them.

And he won’t wait on you.