‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the forty-second of the fifty emails.
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord… The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.
Acts 11:19-21, 26
Luke makes it clear that the account he tells in Acts is a continuation of the same story he began in his gospel (1:1-2). In fact, it is the next phase of the story that goes back to God’s promise to Abraham and the vocation of Israel to be a light to the nations. That calling, embodied supremely in Jesus, is now passed on to his followers as they continue God’s mission, bearing witness – across cultural and racial and geographical boundaries – that his salvation will extend to ‘the ends of the earth’ (1:8).
The biggest personality, of course, is Paul, who makes three separate journeys, travelling throughout the Roman Empire, proclaiming Jesus, establishing churches, returning to instruct them or writing to them.
But it is equally apparent that the work was carried out by ‘ordinary’ believers, who spread the word wherever they went (8:4). We don’t know the names of those who established the church in Antioch; but we do know that it was this multi-cultural mix of Jewish and Gentile believers who were first given the designation ‘Christian’. And it is this church that becomes the base for sending out others – Barnabas and Paul, no less (13:1-3) – launching a mission into the wider Roman world. Rightly the church carries out God’s work in its own place, and rightly it keeps in mind that the gospel is for all nations.
Beyond numerical growth, it’s also apparent that the work of the Spirit is embodied in the lives of the new communities formed – in prayer and worship, in distinct patterns of life together, in following teaching, in economic practices – such that the church is not just one more social organisation within Roman society, but a community which by its very nature is a witness that God’s kingdom is present. Faith, then, is not merely private or interior, but lived on the public stage, engaged in the world.
Throughout, the centre of gravity is God himself – where mission is not what the church does, but what God does through the church. The same gracious God, the same exalted Christ, the same powerful Spirit, and the same amazing plan means we too play a part in the continual unfolding of this story – witnessing to a renewed relationship with God and the restoration of the whole of life under the lordship of Christ.
For further reflection and action:
1. How would you describe the influence and role played by the book of Acts in (a) your own life as a Christian, and (b) the life and ministry of the church to which you belong?
2. Read some passages in Acts (e.g., 2:42-47; 11:19-21; 13:1-3) which describe the early Christian communities. What are the recurring characteristics, and what picture of the church is built up from passages like these?
3. What might be some of the problems with using Acts as a ‘blueprint’ for churches today? How do we decide what applies and does not apply in our own time and place?