Lessons from the first foreign mission undertaken by Barnabas and Saul
WHILE the early chapters of the book of Acts are about the activities of individual missionaries such as Peter, Paul and Barnabas, Acts 13 records the first time a local congregation engaging in an outreach beyond its own community.
This episode becomes a record of the first foreign mission project undertaken by a local congregation in our scriptural accounts.
The church in Antioch in Syria is the first Christian community that makes a deliberate decision to engage in foreign mission. The Antioch church had itself emerged from the spontaneous missionary efforts of early believers who were gripped in a social and religious dilemma.
During the great persecution in Jerusalem that took place after the martyrdom of Stephen, the believers fled to various cities and towns for safety.
When they had settled in those cities, the believers fell into a pattern of seeking out the local synagogue to share the Good News with other Jews.
However, the believers who fl ed to Antioch took the mission pattern further by reaching out to people outside the Jewish community and shared the Good News with Greeks who were non-Jews. The amazing result was that a large number of these Greeks responded to the message and began worshiping together and this led to the development of the church in Antioch.
From the beginning, the church in Antioch had a desire to study the scriptures and the faith. The church also enjoyed the privilege of being taught by some of the best teachers of the day. Barnabas and Saul remained in Antioch a year to instruct the believers.
The desire for learning became the lifestyle of the believers. Furthermore, evidence of their faith became so clear to the wider Antioch society that the believers were labelled derisively as “the Christ people” or “the Christians”. Yet, this same “derogatory” term was later adopted to refer to the disciples of Christ.
The church in Antioch had room for diversity. Its leadership consisted of people from varied backgrounds: Barnabas, a Cypriot Levite by ancestry and at home with Greek culture; Simeon, possibly a North African; Lucius, from Cyrene and Lessons from the first foreign mission undertaken by Barnabas and Saul Missions: We need to pray, to be involved, to be used by God familiar with Latin culture; Manaen, a contemporary of Herod Antipas, possibly from a Jewish aristocratic family; and Saul, a Roman citizen who came from a strict Jewish background.
The spirituality of the church in Antioch was also evident. The leadership (and the people) appeared to gather regularly to worship (otherwise translated as “to serve”) the Lord and to fast. It was during one of these occasions of united prayer that the Christians in Antioch sensed the call to set apart Barnabas and Saul for a missionary journey to go beyond their own community.
The text does not give the details of how they had received this message from the Holy Spirit but in reading the pattern in Acts, it is likely that this message came through a human agency, that is, one of the prophets in the Antioch community communicated this message to the whole church.
The believers responded by fasting and praying for the mission and for the persons to be sent. It was only after they had done so that they laid hands on Barnabas and Saul, commissioning them to the task and sending them on the mission. Clearly, the local congregation in Antioch founded and girded their first mission project in prayer.
However, it was equally clear that this mission was God’s mission. Acts 13:2 says, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul.”
Barnabas and Saul were the first to be set apart for God.
The missionaries were to recognise that it was God whom they served, not the church that had sent them, nor the prophet who communicated the message of the Holy Spirit, nor those who laid hands on them. It was out of this understanding of their primary relationship with and accountability to God that Barnabas and Saul were to fulfil the mission that they were set apart for.
It is also instructive to note how this first mission journey ended. When Barnabas and Saul had completed their missionary task, they returned to the church in Antioch and gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them. This would suggest that as the church was interested to know what had happened the believers in Antioch wanted to own for themselves the mission that Barnabas and Saul had undertaken.
For the Antioch congregation, it was not just Barnabas and Saul who had a missionary task to complete but they as a church were also engaged in fulfilling the mission. In this instance of the first mission project, Barnabas and Saul were not the only missionaries but rather, the whole church was part of the same missionary team.
To follow in the footsteps of that first mission project embarked upon by the church of Antioch will mean beginning with a spirit of learning, of seeking to study God’s word and living out God’s ways as we allow the Word to transform our lives. This commitment to being transformed by God’s word also means seeking to be united in serving the Lord and united in coming before the Lord for his direction and blessing.
In practical terms, it means the congregation accepting as its God-given mission, the missionary tasks that those from their community undertake. We may not be leaving our home, but it is still our mission. There is need for each of us to pray, to use our resources, to be involved and to be open to be used by God. – This article is developed from a sermon first preached at Short Street Tamil Methodist Church.