Jerusalem, Antioch, and Mission

Many of us grew up thinking there was a “pattern” for church that every faithful congregation of God’s people followed. Same style of worship. Same rituals. Same lifestyle. Same polity model. Same church culture. First century or 21st century—didn’t matter. Mississippi or New Zealand—didn’t matter. According to this thinking, the ideal was a vast commonality among churches that overwhelmed all differences and created the possibility of unity. We were “one” to the degree we were the same.

This assumption of “pattern” required that we read (or misread) our New Testaments in certain ways. We poured over data about and descriptions of various first century churches looking for points of comparison, similarities, parallels, and resemblances. We readily, happily, dismissed differences, disparities, and distinctions. We could not allow there to be significant peculiarities in particular churches … once you allowed individuality and uniqueness to creep into church, you might as well give up on the notion of a binding “pattern” applying to all churches at all times and places.

One of the challenges involved in the very concept of “mission” is the notion that differing churches might have differing missions. What if there is not one overriding mission for every church? Or (alternatively) what if there are different ways of accomplishing a common mission, different methods that prove effective with different audiences? What if the global mission of the church can be divided up among particular churches, different churches playing differing roles in addressing a common goal? What if certain churches, in specific times and places, have distinct responsibilities and audiences? What if those distinct responsibilities  shaped the behavior, thoughts, relationships, and culture of a particular church to such a degree that it no longer resembled another—at least in significant ways?

Tough questions!

The Jerusalem Church

The birth of the Jerusalem church occurred on Pentecost, 50 days after the death of Jesus. And for the next five years, the Christian message did not wander far from the womb. The church in Jerusalem enjoyed an incubation period during which forms of worship, structures for community, patterns for evangelism, etc. could be developed. During this time, there were no churches in Gentile territory, no churches in Galilee or Samaria, no other churches at all. There was only one way to “do church” because there was only one church. The Jerusalem church was it. 

And what kind of church was it? It was a congregation shaped as much by Moses and the customs of Israel as by Christ. It was made up exclusively of Jews—no Gentiles need apply. They continued to circumcise their children, to observe kosher food laws, and to pray at the appointed hours. They kept the Sabbath and felt perfectly comfortable gathering in the Synagogue with their Jewish brothers one day and in the Temple courts with their Jewish/Christian brothers the next. They purified themselves according to the traditions of their fathers. They persisted in taking distinctly Jewish vows. They wore the fringes and phylacteries prescribed by the Law. In all probability, they continued to offer sacrifices on the altar of the temple even as they learned to offer their whole lives in sacrifice to Christ.

When they gathered to worship, they met at the temple, in Solomon’s Colonnade. Nor was this a small group, huddling in the corner to softly sing Kumbiyah. Thousands of Christians came there daily for worship and instruction. If you pause to wonder why, over such a long period, the temple authorities did not grow more concerned about what was happening right under their noses, one simple answer is that Jewish-Christian worship was largely indistinguishable from the worship of orthodox Judaism. Early Christians sang the songs of their fathers, using the words of David and the melodies with which they had all been raised. The Scriptures they quoted were from the Jewish canon. Their preachers spoke Aramaic and used the rhetorical conventions of the rabbis.

Most of all, when they spoke of Jesus, they spoke in terms easily understood by their Jewish countrymen. Jesus was the Messiah, the Promised One, the Seed of David, the Deliverer of Israel.

If you were to write a mission statement for the church in Jerusalem, it might read something like: To reach those of the Hebrew race and faith with the good news that Jesus is the Messiah … to incorporate them into a new community of faith (the church) … to help them live out the Christian faith in the context of respect for Moses … and to encourage the preaching of the gospel throughout the rest of the world.

When, at last, God forced the hand of the Jerusalem church and scattered those first Christians abroad, they “preached the word wherever they went.”[1] But not to whomever they met. The gospel was still a distinctly Jewish privilege and preaching was aimed exclusively at Jewish (or proselyte) audiences.[2] As a result, it was quite natural for Jerusalem Christians to export not only the message of salvation through Jesus Christ but also the mission that drove the Jerusalem church: to reach those of the Hebrew race and faith. They had not yet been forced to question whether it was really necessary to be a good Jew in order to be a good Christian.

Not, that is, until Gentiles came on the scene. Seven or eight years after the church began in Jerusalem, Peter made his fateful journey to Caesarea (a d. 37 or 38?) and baptized a Gentile. His Jewish brothers complained that he was fraternizing with Gentiles and having table-fellowship with them. What they really wondered was whether Gentiles could become Christians at all. It took a three-fold vision from God and a dramatic outpouring of the Spirit to win from Peter the grudging concession, “Who was I to think that I could oppose God?” and from the Jewish Christians an acknowledgment that even Gentiles could experience “repentance unto life.”[3]

The Antioch Church

About the same time that Peter was working with Cornelius (sometime in the late 30’s), other evangelists made their circuitous way through Northern Africa and the island of Cyprus to Antioch in Syria. Unintentionally, almost accidentally, they would have the privilege of forcing the gospel cat out of the Jewish bag.

Luke tells us [see Acts 11] that certain Jews began “to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.” More to the point, the Greeks listened eagerly and responded to the message in “great numbers.” Before anyone realized what was happening, before anyone had thought through the consequences of what they were doing, a new kind of church came into existence, populated almost entirely by Gentiles.

The Antioch church was as Gentile as the Jerusalem church was Jewish. The Christians of Antioch spoke a different language, had been shaped by a different culture, lived a different ethic and lifestyle, had a completely different set of problems and priorities. In Jerusalem, followers of Jesus were known as “the believers” or members of “the Way;”[4] but in Antioch, they were called “Christians.”[5] They did not circumcise their children (or themselves) when they accepted Jesus. They paid little or no attention to Jewish ways and customs. In this church, we have the first specific record of kosher food laws being ignored, not only by the Gentiles who had never observed such restrictions but also by the Jewish Christians who were leading these Gentiles to faith.[6]

They had to formulate Christian responses to problems Jerusalem Christians could not have imagined. How were Gentile Christians (for instance) to interact with a culture saturated in idolatry? Could they attend meetings at local temples (common gathering sites for both business and social appointments)? Could they go to the market to buy meat that had been used in pagan sacrifices? What sort of relationship should they have with their idolotrous neighbors? Such questions, unimaginable in Jerusalem, were of critical importance for the Antioch church.  The answers to such questions shaped the life of Antioch Christians in very different directions from their Jerusalem brethren.

Though we are told little about the manner in which the Antioch church worshipped, it is safe to assume that the forms used to express worship were drawn from their native culture rather than a Jewish one. They didn’t meet in the Temple or even in synagogues. They probably did not recite the Shema (Dt 6:4-9—“Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. . . .”), or sing the Ascent Psalms in Hebraic harmonies. Sermons must have been influenced more by Greek rhetorical styles than by rabbinical models.

Even when they spoke of Jesus (something at the core of their shared faith with churches in Judea and Samaria), it was not messianic themes which were stressed but the idea of Jesus as Savior and Son of God—notions much more accessible by the Syrian mind than arcane, apocalyptic concepts rooted deep in Israel’s history.

If you were to write a mission statement for the church in Antioch, it might read something like: To reach Gentiles with the good news that Jesus is their Savior and Lord … to incorporate them into a new community of faith (the church) … to help them live out the Christian faith in the context of a pagan and idolatrous environment … and to encourage the preaching of the gospel throughout the rest of the world.

Now, for the first time, there were two kinds of Christian churches in existence: the Jewish church epitomized by Jerusalem; and the Gentile church found in Antioch. One Lord, one God, one body, one faith held in common. But very different expressions and forms; a great diversity in practice. To be a member of one church would mean adopting a mission and methods that would be incompatible with the other church. You could not move from one church to another without taking off one distinctive lifestyle and putting on a different one. It was not appropriate to bring “zeal for the law” to Antioch, however necessary such zeal might be in Jerusalem. Nor was it appropriate to ignore the law of Moses in Jerusalem, no matter how peripheral Moses might be to faith in Antioch. These were two churches with different missions that shaped the life of members in significant and divergent ways.

A Postscript

The reality of these different missions (indeed, the validity of different missions) can be seen in an incident occurring almost 30 years after Jesus’ death. Paul returned to Jerusalem for (as it turns out) his final visit. Luke’s account (Ac 21) gives us an interesting insight into the enduring Jewish character of the Jerusalem church.

When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present.¼ Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”[7]

This is an amazing passage! It indicates that the mission of the Jerusalem church had met with great success—thousands of Hebrews had become believers. Yet the one characteristic which James and the elders of the church were quick to emphasize for Paul was “zeal for the law.” They continued (three decades after the cross) to follow the traditions of Moses, circumcising their children and keeping the finer points of the Mosaic covenant.

Word had come to Jerusalem—the elders themselves were shocked and gave the reports no credence—that Paul did not live like a good Jew when among the Gentiles, telling other Diaspora Jews that, as Christians, they were not obligated to keep the law. Some in the Jerusalem church, foolishly believing such reports, were quite upset with Paul. (“What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come.”).

Paul, of course, was doing precisely what had been reported because he was working under a different mission. Christ had called him to “preach the gospel to the Gentiles” (Gal 2:7, 9). Not only had he consistently refused to bind Moses on Gentiles; he encouraged other Jews to do what he himself had done—become “all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”[8] When Paul’s Jewishness got in the way of effectively reaching Gentiles, he gladly set it aside. His consistent encouragement to other Jews working with Gentiles was to do the same.

But—in Paul’s response to this sticky situation—we see his recognition of the validity of the Jerusalem mission. And—in his flexibility … in his willingness to “become all things to all men” … in his comfort with adopting contrasting church behaviors depending on the “target audience” involved—we see the validity of different missions for different churches. This would have been the perfect opportunity for Paul to take his Jerusalem brothers to task about their continued reliance on the law. “Don’t you know that circumcision counts for nothing? Don’t you realize that the Kingdom is not a matter of food or special days?” Instead, he listened to the suggested solution posed by the elders of the Jerusalem church and honored their request.

The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.

When in Jerusalem, Paul honored the mission of the Jerusalem church—to reach those of the Hebrew race and faith, and the methods that entailed—to honor the law and traditions of Moses. It wasn’t his particular mission or methods. He wouldn’t want such a mission and such methods to be imposed on Antioch or Corinth or Rome. But he was content to support that mission and submit to those methods while in Jerusalem. He recognized that different churches have different missions and utilize different means of accomplishing them.

[The bulk of this article was excerpted from my book A Church that Flies. Leafwood, 2000.]

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[1]     Ac 8:4

[2]     Ac 11:19

[3]     Ac 11:17-18

[4]     Ac 1:15; 2:44; 4:32; 5:12; 9:2

[5]     Ac 11:26

[6]     Gal 2:11ff

[7]     Ac 21:17-26

[8]     1Co 9:19-22

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.