ANTIOCH is the pattern missionary church. The church in Jerusalem consisted of Jews and proselytes to the Jewish religion, out of various nations, all of whom had confessed Christ. They had been slow to obey the Lord's command to preach the gospel to every creature, but persecution had scattered them, and they spread abroad, preaching to the Jews whom they found in all the cities to which they came. The important city of Antioch attracted some, among whom were natives of the island of Cyprus, and Cyrenians from North Africa. These abandoned the custom of confining the preaching to Jews and preached to the general population of Antioch. The Lord blessed their word so abundantly that the news spread everywhere, that large numbers of Grecians had believed.
This soon reached Jerusalem, where the church was concerned to think that uncircumcised persons were being received at Antioch. Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to Antioch to investigate the matter. Barnabas being himself from Cyprus, was able the more readily to get into touch with those from his own island who were among the missionaries whose preaching had been so effective in Antioch. Though his own natural prejudices were in favour of bringing all the saints into conformity to the law and Jewish practice of circumcision, yet when he saw that the grace manifested among the Gentiles who believed was clearly from God, he accepted the testimony of the Holy Spirit and threw in his lot with a church which had in it the marks of being owned by the Lord, even though it did not conform to a practice in which he had been brought up, and which was hallowed to him by the memory of many godly men, the tradition of whose lives had been among his chief spiritual inspirations.
Some of the Jerusalem brethren disapproved of this action of Barnabas. They hoped that he would have brought Antioch to their point of view and considered that he had shown weakness in yielding to the influences surrounding him there, and unfaithfulness in letting slip a practice which they esteemed to be of primary importance. Some of these followed later to Antioch with a definite message. There was to be either acceptance of their view and practice, or exclusion. Their visit did not edify the church but caused serious dissension so that there was danger of division. They would have welcomed division as being a separation of that which was pure from that which contaminated. It was, however, wisely decided to give the matter fuller and wider consideration, and Barnabas and Paul, with others, were sent to Jerusalem to obtain the help of their greater experience there. The result was a decision to receive believers even though not conforming to the rite of circumcision. The whole circumstance impressed on the eiders at Jerusalem, and indeed the whole church, the fact that the matter of visiting the churches was one of great importance, necessary on the one hand, on the other, liable to dangerous abuse. So they disavowed the men who had caused dissension and were careful to choose those whom they sent back to Antioch with the brethren who had come from there, sending Judas and Silas as being definitely commended by them for the service. Barnabas and Paul, too, felt the importance of visiting the churches, and decided to visit the brethren in every city where they had preached.
The choice, however, of a younger companion for this journey caused great difficulty. Paul absolutely refusing to take the brother who had failed them at a critical point in their former journey. He felt that to have the wrong man on a missionary journey would be a mistake of such magnitude that not even the loss of the companionship of well-tried Barnabas could justify the risk. He therefore chose Silas, with his Jerusalem commendation, and one who, in contradistinction to his predecessor, was not turned back to Jerusalem by the sight of missionary perils, but, in the Philippi prison, sang aloud for joy because he might share the afflictions of the gospel. This care in the choice of fellow workers was shown again soon afterwards, the qualifications that Paul saw in Timothy having to be supported by the commendation of all the brethren in the district where he was known, before he was taken with Paul and Silas.
Among the elders of the church at Antioch, were men of different nationalities. Barnabas and Paul were Jews. Simeon must have been a coloured brother from Africa. Lucius also came from Africa and may have been one of the original missionaries who first brought the gospel to Antioch. There does not appear to have been any feeling that one nation or race was better fitted than another to guide the churches. Some of the Jewish believers evidently thought that they should have a preeminence, but this claim was always denied in the revelations of the Holy Spirit given in various ways. Even the church at Jerusalem did not claim to guide the church at Antioch, though it was willing to give advice when asked to do so, and evidently was much interested in the progress at Antioch.
The elders of the Antioch church were aware of a very solemn importance attaching to their service. They not only taught the saints, but, knowing their dependence upon God, and their responsibility to Him, they met together to minister to the Lord. Together they waited before Him, with a deep sense of His presence. They were intensely concerned as to their responsibility towards God with regard to making known among the heathen the word of life; they fasted as they besought the Lord to reveal to them His mind in this matter. It was under these circumstances that the Holy Spirit spoke to them. His message concerned themselves, two of their own number were unmistakably indicated as called to special missionary service. They could ill be spared, but the church let them go, and fasting and prayer and laying on of hands were the solemn expressions showing that, though only Barnabas and Paul went, yet all were fully and permanently joined with them in the whole responsibility of the enterprise. The Holy Spirit and the church worked together in the sending forth of these men. Coming among various peoples, they did not attack their religions, but rather began by seeking points of contact. Among Jews, they expounded the Old Testament Scriptures in the synagogues. Among the heathen, they spoke of God manifest to all in creation. This gave them opportunity to introduce their message of repentance and of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. They did not destroy the old as a preliminary to building the new, but the facts and doctrines of the gospel they preached were so vigorous in their effects that the old religions naturally disappeared as the new faith took hold of the lives of those who believed.
The missionaries from Antioch were constant travellers. They seldom went alone, and often attached to their party, brethren of the countries through which they passed. On one occasion we find eight brethren travelling together. There are no records of appeals for money to meet the expenses of their journeys nor for the support of work which they originated in different places; but some of the churches ministered to their needs, and they themselves took up occupations when circumstances permitted, by which they earned money for their own requirements and were able sometimes to help others. Their aim was to found churches, and these would be self-supporting from a very early stage. The idea of establishing mission stations permanently dependent on Antioch or some other centre for spiritual guidance and material support would have been altogether contrary to their purpose.
Having thus in view the formation and growth of churches, they were much exercised in the spiritual perception required to enable them to recognize the men whom the Holy Spirit indicated as suitable for eldership. They occupied themselves much with the instruction of such, knowing that the character and power for testimony of the churches would depend largely on their faithfulness and ability. This prevented the tying down of the missionaries to one district, and set them at liberty to travel extensively, and, while their first coming to a place was the means of founding a church, and their later visits were very valuable in confirming, correcting, and encouraging the saints, their absence gave opportunity for the development of responsibility and gift and trust in God on the part of the believers and elders in the church.
Those who confessed Christ were baptized. Even though most of them were brought out of the corrupt conditions of heathendom, yet they were not kept waiting until they had proved their sincerity but received into the circle of the fellowship of the church. This gave the whole church, and especially the overseers, pastors, and teachers, much and difficult work. The task of instructing such people in the holy following of Christ was a formidable undertaking. There were frequent falls into flagrant errors of life and doctrine, but the saints were encouraged, in the leading and power of the Holy Spirit, to give themselves to this service in the church with the same devotion as they had seen in those who first brought the glad tidings of salvation to them. The direction that journeys should take, the choice as to which places should be visited, and which left, was a constant occasion of exercise of heart and of unceasing prayer on the part of the missionaries, that they might never lose that leading of the Holy Spirit which alone could be depended upon to bring them at the right time to the right place for the fulfilment of the purposes of God.
The natural tendency to departure from the divinely given plan makes frequent reference to it, necessary and profitable. While large scope is given for variation in the details of the service, the Holy Spirit giving in all times, wisdom to those who wait on God to know how to meet the variety of circumstances they come in contact with, yet, the main principles of the service are always the same, and we seldom read this narrative without seeing that it exhibits them in interesting and vivid form, practically fitted to instruct us who are servants, and we are glad of all that can improve our service. E. H. B.
“Echoes of Service” 1921