Diversity in the Church (Acts 13:1)

This past March I had the privilege to preach at a local church’s missions conference. The title of the sermon was, “Gospel-Centered Goodbyes” and I covered Acts 13:1–3. Given some of the discussions on racial reconciliation I think some of the notes from Acts 13:1 may help with showing the diversity that existed in the early church. Below are some of my study notes for Acts 13:1!


The Church’s Location: Antioch (v. 1a). The verse begins by identifying Antioch (of Syria) as the church’s location, Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there. The city of Antioch was significant in the early church. One of the Jerusalem church’s first deacons named Nicolas was from Antioch (Acts 6:5) and it was here, after all, that followers of Christ were first called Christians (Acts 11:26).

The population of the city during the first century likely numbered half a million. It sat about 15 miles away from the Mediterranean which meant it was a busy metropolitan city, especially since it served as a pathway to larger eastern cities. This meant that there was a great mix of people in the area that ranged in ethnicity, social status, and economic status. This also meant that the city had a lot of places for sinful vices. The city had places for gambling, chariot races, brothels, exotic banquets, and the like.[1]

Still, this secular success was not strong enough to withstand the spread of the gospel. The church was birthed about one year prior to the events of Acts 13 when men from Cyprus and Cyrene preached the gospel among the gentiles (Acts 11:20). This led to the Jerusalem church sending leaders to help with the church’s growth and development. One of these men, we’ll discuss in greater detail later, was Barnabas (v. 22).

The Church’s Leaders: Prophets and Teachers (v. 1b). Even though the church was but one year old, the support it received from the Jerusalem church proved profitable for their growth and development. Shortly after arriving, Barnabas, left to retrieve Paul. Upon returning, these two men devoted themselves to the ministry of teaching the church-at-large (11:25–26).

God gifted this church with prophets and teachers. Few people in the book of Acts are considered prophets. The short list would include Agabus (11:28; 21:10), Judas and Silas (15:32), and the prophetess daughters of Philip (21:9). Here, we are told that the church in Antioch had several prophets and teachers.[2] This was not merely their present state, but it characterized the church.[3]

The two terms prophets and teachers have overlap.[4] Prophets were individuals who declared God’s message. Similarly, teaching involved provided instruction to others regarding the apostle’s teaching. Teaching was a much less spontaneous activity. The early church was taught through doctrinal summaries, hymns, and ordinances like baptism and The Lord’s Table (1 Cor 8:4–6; 11:23–26; Rom 1:2–4; Col 1:15–20).[5] In short, the two terms were used to describe the people in the church who thoroughly understood the Word and were able to teach others.[6]

The identify of the prophets and teachers are given in the following five names. The identify or distinction between prophet and teacher among these five men is not clearly identified.[7] The point is that the church in  Antioch had been characterized as a church that possessed gifted men who were prophets and teachers. In the Ephesians 4:11–16 sense this church was truly blessed by God’s gifts of servants.

Barnabas.” The first man we find listed is Barnabas. He is already a familiar name in the early church. He is identified as early as Acts 4:36–37. There, he is described as a Jewish man of Levitical heritage. Geographically, Barnabas was of Cyprian birth. Cyrpus was an island country off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Culturally, Cyprus was annexed to Rome in 58 BC. His background is quite rich as a Jew living on a Roman governed island.

Barnabas’ name means, “son of encouragement” (4:36). He is identified as Joseph, but is known among the apostles by Barnabas. He was known among the early church as a generous man since he sold his property and gave the money to the apostles (4:37). Barnabas is also responsible for the growth and development of the church in Antioch (11:22). He brought Paul to Antioch where they faithfully taught the people of God (11:25–26).

Simeon who was called Niger.” Not much is known about Simeon. The text indicates that he was called Niger. This is probably an indication of his complexion since Niger, in Latin, means black; or it is a reference to his geographical origins. The term itself is found nowhere else in the NT an is even rare in extra-biblical literature.[8] None the less, the point seems to be that Simeon was ethnically or geographically different from the rest of the leaders.

Lucius of Cyrene.” The third person that Luke identifies is Lucius of Cyrene. This city was in North Africa that was not foreign to the gospel. When Jesus walked to the mount of His crucifixion a man from Cyrene was pressed into service to carry His cross (Matt 27:32). Additionally, Peter’s message on the day of Pentacost had listeners from Cyrene (Acts 2:10).

Eventually, people from Cyrene would travel to Antioch to share the gospel with gentiles (11:20). Therefore, it would be no surprise if Lucius was one of the founding members of the church in Antioch. Even if he wasn’t, it was his people that God used to bring the gospel to this local church.

Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch.” Here, Manaen is described as someone who had been brought up with Herod. This could mean that Manaen was either a foster brother of Herod or a childhood friend of Herod. Just one chapter earlier Herod (Agrippa I) passes away. Herod ruled over Jerusalem and was Roman royalty.

This would have several implications for Manaen. First, it would have indicated that, geographically, he was from Jerusalem. Second, it would have also indicated his high place in society. Whether or not this was from childhood or from personal relationship he would have been higher on the social ladder. It was no small matter to be considered the friend of a government leader.[9] Third, this would have indicated that Manaen was an older man. Herod Agrippa was born around 20 BC which would mean that Manaen could have been in his mid-60s.

Saul.” Lastly, and perhaps most familiar to Christians today Luke mentions Saul or Paul. We know Paul to have been a Jewish Pharisee zealous for the destruction of the church (Acts 8:1–3; Phil 3:2–6). His conversion, recorded in Acts 9, turned the direction of his life and God would use him to greatly strengthen the early church and saints to come.

Saul’s relationship with the church was one of humble service. Paul is described as having taught the people with Barnabas (11:25–26). We also find that Paul and Barnabas were responsible for delivering the collection made for the suffering saints in Jerusalem (11:29–30).

These five men are listed and all come from a variety of backgrounds. What we find in this group is a Jewish man who grew up on a Roman island, two men likely from North Africa, a socially elite man growing up in Jerusalem, and an educated Pharisee who previously sought the church’s destruction.

This passage also teaches us that a diverse place like Antioch had a diverse leadership that was reflective of the community. The ministry of the local church cannot be isolated to a people group, but the gospel invites all to come to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 13:1 teaches us that churches are led by people who set aside personal ego and employ their God-given gifts for the benefit of the church. God is an equal opportunity employer to all peoples who have been redeemed.

 

[1] Keener, p. 1990.

[2] Barrett, p. 603.

[3] The preposition κατὰ should be understood as distributive. This means that it prophets and teachers were common in the church [Parsons, p. 243; Lenski, p. 491].

[4] The participle οὖσαν is an attributive participle [Parsons, p. 243].

[5] Bock, p. 439.

[6] Ibid., 439.

[7] Lenski, p. 492.

[8] Some believe that the τε . . . καὶ . . . καὶ . . . τε . . . is used to mark distinction. This would mean that the Barnabas, Simeon, and Lucious were prophets and Manaen and Paul were teachers [Lenski, p. 492]. Still, the construction could merely by stylistic for the purpose of variety [Parsons, p. 244; Barret, p. 603].

[9] Walter A. Elwell, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 120.


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