Acts 11 tells the story of a new church in a big city. Because of persecution Jewish Christians scattered out of Jerusalem and some of them made it 300 miles north to the major metropolis of Antioch. While Jerusalem was large, Antioch was larger and more diverse. History tells us it was the Mediterranean’s third largest city of the day, sitting at the crossroads of every major economy and ethnic group in the area. When the Romans conquered the area it left the city basically intact, declared it free, made it the seat of the Roman governor in the region, and absorbed much of the residual Syrian religion. As a result a large temple just outside of the city was adapted for the Roman pantheon and became famous for its cultic prostitution. Antioch was advanced and dynamic. It was also debauched.
During the 30’s AD, Christians began to show up and preach, as Luke puts it, that Jesus is Lord. The church grew among the Jews in the city and then quickly spread to the Gentiles. The church grew and drew the attention of the apostles in Jerusalem. They sent Barnabas, Barnabas brought Saul, and within a generation the church at Antioch surpassed the influence of Jerusalem and became the center of the early church for nearly two hundred years. The disciples in Antioch were so dynamic, it was there they were first labeled, “little Christs.”
The church in Antioch gives us some important things to think about.
Often the “foreign mission” is across the street or across town from us. When they first arrived the Christians preached only to the Jews. But Antioch was full of “others” who needed to hear and it was not long before they did. And because the church was actively opening its arms to literally everyone, a dynamic and powerful church was built. Every church in every modern city is not far from people who are drastically different. They are from different cultures and they have different native tongues. But the church has never (when it is right with God) been turned off by that. More than ever, the modern city, even of modest size, is full of “mission field” people. We send missionaries around the globe and we ought to send them across town.
The church preached a simple message: “Jesus is Lord.” It was clearly full of the message of the resurrected Savior, but Luke notes its simple and effective focus in a pluralistic, pagan culture. Jesus is unique and he alone is Lord of all. He is greater than all other idols and forms of worship, and the human soul will find its rest alone in him. Without neglecting the full gospel, the contemporary church can learn from a simple laser focus of a message like this. No other substitute for God will do for human experience.
The church was unafraid to throw its message into a crowded and hostile public square. They could have stayed in the corner of culture where they found relative comfort in the Jewish neighborhoods and Synagogues, but they did not. They stepped out into the fray and talked about Jesus to the Romans and Persians on their way to their temple sacrifices. And it worked. It can be fairly said that the greatest mistake the church can make in the city is to fail to step out into the public area with the objective and powerful truth of Jesus Christ.