AspACTS 3: The Message and its Meaning
[A word about the title of this series: AspACTS is not a misspelling but a play on words. This blog aims to examine different aspects of the Book of Acts, and what we can learn about being Christians in our own time.]
We have been reflecting on the first Christian mission to Antioch. (Acts 11.19-27) . As Luke tells this story, it is the first mission outside what we call the Holy Land. And as we have seen, it was not only successful but profoundly important for the future of Christianity. In the first blog in this series, we looked at why the study of the mission in Antioch is important. In the second, we looked at how St. Barnabas was dispatched to Antioch and why.
In this reflection, we will look at the message the followers of Jesus brought to Antioch. This will prepare us in the next installment to consider why this message was so well received by non-Jews in that city. In other words, in this blog we will ask what were the seeds that were sown in this place? In the next, why did they take root?
The Men (and Women)
We recall that the folks who first began to witness to Jesus in Antioch had fled Jerusalem because of the persecution that resulted in the martyrdom of Stephen. This tells us quite a lot about them:
- Though scattered because of persecution, these folks didn’t hide out. As so often happens in the history of the Church, when destruction looms, faith excels. As one of the ancient Christians said who lived through later persecutions, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” (Tertullian) The stoning of Stephen not only sent folks fleeing in all directions, but it also opened doors for witness. These men and women were not afraid!
- Those who were scattered were Jews – Jews from other places. When they returned to their former homes, they turned to their fellow Jews and shared their experience of faith. That in itself says something about their character and about what had happened to them in a fairly short period of time. Somehow, they knew that they were supposed to share their stories! Silence for Christians is not an option!
- A few of these, however, went well beyond what these others did: these Jews who had become followers of Jesus now took the dramatic step of telling of Jesus to non-Jews – to Gentiles! This was most significant. And it discloses something tremendously important about their understanding of the mission of Jesus.
- There was a universal meaning to Jesus’ ministry! That is, Jesus did not come just to recall and restore Israel to its special place as God’s people. Jesus was not just a Jewish reformer. The whole purpose of Jesus was to extend God’s grace and sovereignty – God’s love and fellowship to all human beings!
It is remarkable that these disciples took the initiative in reaching out to non-Jews. They did not ask permission of anyone to do this, and don’t seem, in fact, to have thought that their action was such as needed any outside permission. In short, they thought that speaking to Greeks – or Gentiles – about Jesus was an entirely appropriate and necessary thing to do.
Luke says that those who spoke to non-Jews were simply “preaching the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 11.20 RSV) Actually, the verb indicates that they were sharing “the good news of the Lord Jesus,” and several translations make that clear.
The fact that these followers were speaking of Jesus as Lord is very significant. The word “Lord” denoted the exalted status of Jesus following his resurrection. Peter had spoken of all this at Pentecost in Jerusalem a few years before, and summed up his message by saying that this Jesus was “exalted to the right hand of God,” and “God has made this Jesus whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2.32, 36)
The “preaching” of Jesus as Lord is a shorthand expression for proclaiming the basic story of Jesus – the Gospel. The title, “Christ” would have spoken to Jews because it was the assertion that Jesus was the long-expected Messiah. This would not have been so apparent to non-Jews, however. The title, “Lord,” on the other hand, spoke quite clearly to them. The word meant “master,” or “owner.” In other words, these followers of Jesus were claiming that in his resurrection, God had raised Jesus to be the master of all – the ultimate authority over creation, life and destiny.
Such a message was also somewhat dangerous. The Roman emperors, always concerned with the unity of the empire, laid exclusive claim to the title “Lord.” Some even went further, flirting with the idea that they were in some sense divine, god-like. Nero, the emperor who reigned at the time Luke likely wrote his book, thought of himself as Apollo incarnate! So the message that any other person was or could be “Lord” could result in a charge of treason.
This last sense – that “Lord” refers to the Emperor – takes on added meaning in the phrase, “Jesus is Lord.” Here, Jesus would have replaced the Emperor in the common mind:
- Jesus is the ultimate power.
- Jesus is the new king.
- Jesus is the one who saves us from hostile powers and makes our lives secure.
- Jesus is the one to whom we can look for sustenance, for justice, for peace.
- Jesus is the true ruler of world.
The message that Jesus was Lord would, at the very least, have invited great interest. It opened a door for people to ask what this message was all about? That, in turn, led to many teaching opportunities. Simple curiosity would have presented the followers of Jesus with the chance to identify who Jesus was. They would tell his story, emphasizing his wondrous works and his wonderful teaching. They would tell of how he had been unjustly tried and convicted and put to death. But above all, they would tell of the thing that stunned them all – that Jesus, who had been buried, had suddenly appeared to them bodily and was very much alive!
This teaching was far more than the presentation of a program, or the recitation of a “tradition.” Some, perhaps many of those who were “preaching the Lord Jesus” had actually seen and heard Jesus and knew those who were his closest associates. Their own lives had been changed by the resurrection of Jesus. It was well-known that a very large number of people – over 500 – had seen and heard the risen Jesus! (1 Cor 15.6) It may be that some of our preachers in Antioch had been among them! The point is that these preachers conveyed more than so many facts or traditions about Jesus: they spoke from the heart, with the power of those whose lives had been transformed, and with a living joy and courage that came from the risen Jesus himself. That is what Luke means when in the very next verse he says, “The hand of the Lord was with them.” (Acts 11.21)
I need to say one more thing about what those first missionaries proclaimed. As we will see shortly, the City of Antioch was a magnet that attracted all sorts and conditions of men and women from all corners of the earth. It was less a melting pot than a chunky stew of different nationalities, races, classes and above all religions.
When the followers of Jesus came proclaiming him, some of the hearers would likely have misunderstood them. When they called Jesus “Christ,” for example, their hearers likely thought that was his name. We saw that they turned that name into an epithet, or a put down. These first hearers may well have thought that the Christians were just adding another god to the mix of gods that were to be found in any ancient city.
But the Christians were different. There was and could be only one God. That is what was meant by saying that Jesus is Lord: Jesus was Lord of All. (Acts 10.36) No other power could be greater and no other loyalty could be entertained.
The first Christian missionaries offered something that was entirely unique and completely demanding. They were proclaiming a message that was at one and the same time both inclusive and exclusive: Inclusive, because they saw Jesus as the power and presence of God, the creator, who had made all human beings and all the world and was now restoring or reconciling the whole world to Himself. It was exclusive, however, because it demanded complete trust, complete surrender, full understanding and full obedience.
In other words, these first missionaries were eager to reach out to their neighbors, but they were neither so eager nor timid as to water down their own message. What some detractors said of Paul and his mission efforts sometime later could as easily have been said about the first missionaries at Antioch: these men and women were doing nothing less than “turning the world upside down!” (Acts 17.6)
So let me summarize what we know about these missionaries to this point:
- They were courageous, taking the initiative to share their faith in Jesus with others;
- They were bold, taking the sting of an epithet and making it the standard by which to measure themselves: they would be “little Christs”;
- They stood out from their neighbors – but were at the same time concerned for them;
- They were clear about their message: Jesus is Lord – indeed, Lord of All;
- They were clear about their mission: Jesus embraces us all, but each must decide to follow him.
Next time, we will take a closer look at the City of Antioch itself and consider why this message drew new people to the Lord Jesus.