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June 8, 2020

A Multicultural Church

“Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon (called ‘the black man’), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas), and Saul.” Acts 13:1 (NLT)

The New Testament Church was not perfect by any means. There never has been a perfect church. You may be looking for one today, but you won’t find it and if you did, you may not want to join it because it wouldn’t be perfect anymore. No church is perfect because they are made up of imperfect people like you and me. We’ve seen in our study of the early church the past few days how it began to break free of racial prejudice and become more inclusive of non-Jewish members that God was adding to their numbers. Still, there were problems that stretched the fabric of their faith and fellowship. God uses these problems not to threaten our relationships but to deepen them.

As the gospel message spread through the early church from Jerusalem to Samaria and into more Gentile regions of the Roman world it became a mosaic of beauty reflecting God’s love for all mankind! By the time you get to Acts 13, the second largest congregation emerges in Antioch of Syria. About 300 miles northeast of Jerusalem, the church at Antioch of Syria played a more important role in the early church than any other city with the exception of Jerusalem itself. After Rome and Alexandria, Antioch was the largest city in the Roman world. It became the location for the first Gentile church in the New Testament. Christ followers were first called “Christians” there in Acts 11:26. The Apostle Paul used this city as his home base of operations for his missionary journeys with a worldwide mission to fulfill the Great Commission that Jesus left with His followers.    

Unlike the mother church in Jerusalem, Antioch developed a multicultural staff. We are introduced to them in Acts 13:1 (NLT), “Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon (called ‘the black man’), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas), and Saul.”

As a pastor, I was intrigued to dig a little deeper into the dynamic of this group of leaders. We’ve already met Saul (later called Paul) and Barnabas, apostles from the Jerusalem church, but now we get to meet three other staff members on this leadership team – Simeon “called the black man” who may have been the same man as Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross; then there is Lucius from Cyrene in North Africa who was probably one of the original evangelists who helped found the church in Antioch and finally, Manaen, which is a Greek form of the Hebrew name Menahem (meaning “comfort”), and was brought up with Herod Antipas, who executed John the Baptist. (How interesting that these two men, raised in the same setting, would go such opposite directions. Manaen followed Christ abandoning wealth and possible position and power while Herod Antipas rejected Christ for worldly gain.  

These five leaders reflected the diversity of the congregation in Antioch that was inclusive of primarily Gentile and Jewish members, some who were formerly religious and others who were more pagan because Antioch was the center of worship for several pagan cults that promoted sexual immorality and other forms of evil common to pagan religions. Together this diverse congregation was learning how to grow in Christ as one body. What a variety there was in this New Testament church!  The only common thread among the staff and membership of this church was their deep faith in Jesus. The emphasis was not on unity of persons but on unity of purpose, not on conformity, but on the transformational work of the Holy Spirit as they grew together to spread the Gospel to the remotest parts of the earth.  They did not exclude anyone that God was adding to the church to follow Jesus.

What a challenge to the church today! If we did the same, our churches would be comprised of people from different racial and cultural backgrounds. Why aren’t we? It’s human nature to find our comfort with others who are “like us.” But the root of that is the ugly sin of prejudice and fear. The more we understand the Great Commission to go into all the world and embrace God’s version of the church, the more we will transcend these differences and reflect the beauty of His love.  

Chuck Swindol writes, “One of the most profound comments made regarding the early church came from the lips of a man named Aristides, sent by the Emperor Hadrian to spy out those strange creatures known as “Christians.”  Having seen them in action, Aristides returned with a mixed report. But his immortal words to the emperor have echoed down through history: “Behold! How they love one another.”  May God grant us such a revival of love today.