Tertullian’s observation that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” certainly rings true to the narrative of Acts.
After the stoning of Stephen (chapter 7), the narrator relates that “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria” (8:1). Those who were scattered “went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (8:4), including Philip, who proclaimed the gospel in Samaria and to an Ethiopian eunuch (8:5-40).
After relating Saul’s conversion from chief persecutor to gospel proclaimer (9:1-31) and the beginnings of Peter’s ministry among Gentiles (10:1-48), the narrative moves back to Jerusalem. Peter reports to the church in Jerusalem about his ministry among the Gentiles, and those who hear praise God and marvel that “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (11:18).
Sowing and Watering the Word
At 11:19, the narrative returns to “those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen,” and we learn that they have traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch (in Syria), proclaiming the gospel among Jews (11:19). Among them are some men from Cyprus and Cyrene, Greek-speaking Jews (cf. 6:1-6) who also bring the word to the “Hellenists” (11:20), likely meaning Gentiles or a mixed group of Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles. Their witness, blessed by the “hand of the Lord,” results in many becoming believers (11:21). The seeds scattered by persecution have been sown and have taken root.
As when Philip brought the gospel to Samaria (8:14) and when Peter brought the gospel to Gentiles in Caesarea (11:1-3), the church in Jerusalem investigates these developments (11:22). They dispatch to Antioch a man named Barnabas, already introduced as one who sold his land and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet (4:36-37) and who vouched for the authenticity of Saul’s transformation before the apostles in Jerusalem (9:27). Barnabas rejoices when he sees the grace of God at work in Antioch, and true to the meaning of his name (“son of encouragement”), he exhorts the believers to remain faithful (11:23).
Barnabas then travels to Tarsus to find Saul and bring him back to Antioch, where for an entire year they meet with the believers there and teach them (11:25-26). The word that has been planted continues to be watered and cultivated. The author adds that “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians'” (11:26). This designation likely was given by those outside the church and was meant be derogatory. It appears only one other place in Acts, on the lips of an outsider, King Agrippa (26:28). While Jesus’ disciples did not understand themselves as departing from Judaism, apparently others began to regard them as a distinct group of “messianists.”
Benevolence and Mission
Some prophets come from Jerusalem to Antioch, and one named Agabus predicts that there will be “a severe famine over all the world.” The narrator adds that “this took place during the reign of Claudius” (11:27-28). The dating of events with reference to secular rulers is typical of Luke-Acts, as is the use of hyperbole evident in the phrase “over all the world.” The early Jewish historian Josephus corroborates the occurrence of a famine in Judea around 45-48 CE, during the reign of Claudius (Antiquities 20. 51-53, 101).
More important than the dating of the event is the response of the disciples in Antioch, who determine that they will send relief to the believers in Judea, each giving according to their ability (11:29). Just as the church in Jerusalem held their possessions in common and distributed proceeds to all “as any had need” (2:44-45; 4:32-35), so the disciples in Antioch show compassion for their fellow believers in Jerusalem. The appointment of Barnabas and Saul to convey this gift to Jerusalem (11:30) indicates their prominence as leaders of the church in Antioch.
The prominence of Barnabas and Saul is confirmed at the beginning of chapter 13, as they are listed among a small but diverse group of prophets and teachers in the Antiochene church. Barnabas is a Levite and a native of Cyprus (4:36), and Saul a Pharisaic Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia (22:3; 23:6). Also mentioned are Simeon who was called Niger (the Latin word for “black”), likely a proselyte from somewhere in North Africa, Lucius of Cyrene (Libya), and Manaen, of the Jewish aristocratic class and “a member of the court of Herod the ruler” (i.e., Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, 4 BCE – 39 CE) (13:1).
Since Simeon Niger, Lucius, and Manaen are mentioned only here, we have no further information about them. The focus turns once again to Barnabas and Saul. While the congregation is worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit directs them to set apart Barnabas and Saul “for the work to which I have called them” (13:2). After more fasting and prayer, the community lays hands on the two men and sends them off (13:3).
The Spirit-Driven Church
One striking aspect of the Acts narrative is that virtually every move made by Jesus’ followers, individually and collectively, is prompted and guided by the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1:8, Jesus told his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This promise comes to fruition as the narrative unfolds. The Spirit guides Jesus’ followers to bear witness first in Jerusalem, then, when they are scattered by persecution, in Judea and Samaria, and now to the “ends of the earth,” or throughout the Roman Empire.
The disciples’ mission in Antioch bears fruit because “the hand of the Lord was with them” (11:21). While this young congregation is worshiping and fasting, the Spirit directs them to send out their teachers Barnabas and Saul in mission (13:2). The narrative doesn’t tell us all we might like to know, such as how the community recognized the Spirit’s voice. It might be tempting to dismiss Acts as overly simplistic in this regard. However, the Spirit’s guidance is not immediately clear to everyone in Acts. There is conflict within the community over significant issues (e.g., 11:3, 15:1-5). Yet there is also a willingness to hear one another’s testimony, to deliberate, pray, and discern how God is at work, even in unexpected ways (11:17-18; 15:6-21).
Another striking feature of early church life in Acts is that there is no separation between the church’s spiritual life and its use of material goods. Prayer, worship, evangelism, and fellowship go hand in hand with the sharing of possessions and giving to those in need (2:43-47; 4:32-35; 11:21-30). There is no need for an annual “stewardship drive” because stewardship, generosity, and concern for the common good are built into the daily life of the community.
While we are not necessarily called to replicate church life from the first century, we are called to faithful discipleship in our own century. What does a Spirit-driven church of the 21st century look like? This text might open up fruitful conversations about how we discern the Spirit’s leading today, how we stay focused on mission, and how we learn to view our use of material goods as inseparable from our spiritual lives.