Barnabas at Antioch: A Model for Bridge-People
by Julian Russell
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.
Differences between cultures often produce unpleasant experiences. When culturally diverse people rub against each other, rest assured, friction is generated. Friction within the church is an inevitable by-product when Christians come together. How will God’s people handle this cultural friction that could easily divide, distort, and destroy the body-witness of the church? Answer: The Lord has key individuals in place. The same Jesus who turned common water into fine wine, who turned common fisherman into world-changers,–is still at work, transforming regular folk into extraordinary people–bridge-people.
In Acts 11:19-24, the Lord used persecutions to move His church toward making disciples of every ethnic group. Many believed the Gospel and became converted. One such place was Antioch, some 300 miles north of Jerusalem. Antioch had become a very diverse center at the time of Christ. Richard Longenecker described it as “a melting pot of Western and Eastern cultures, where Greek and Roman traditions, mingled with Semitic, Arab, and Persian influences.”
The church at Antioch became a vibrant, multi-ethnic congregation that exhibited levels of Christian transformation that radically impacted that region. This new community believed that they fully belonged to the one people of God, despite their ethnic and cultural differences. We cannot imagine the tension that Jewish Christians must have felt about Gentiles believing the Gospel. Christopher Wright observes: “The powerful message that brought hope and joy to diverse Gentile communities brought shock and anger to some of Paul’s fellow Jews.” The church at Jerusalem didn’t seem prepared for this fruitful inclusion of Gentiles.
Barnabas played a key role in the church at Antioch. He was commissioned as the right person for the task. After all, Barnabas had demonstrated a keen ability to flourish in the Gentile-dominant world of Cyprus. He was also a generous man and demonstrated his giftedness in shaping others. Most importantly, he was filled with the Holy Spirit. This young church needed sound teaching, so Barnabas placed “the needs of the church before his own advancement and self-glorification." As an official representative of the established church, Barnabas was probably one its most significant figures. Yet this confident bridge-person was willing to open the “circle of leadership” to include the highly trained Paul.
The church has always been a counter-cultural phenomenon. That’s why its members are urged to become equipped and enabled to withstand “the corrosive acids of a culture” that does not know Jesus. The Lord worked so mightily at Antioch that onlookers referred to this multi-ethnic congregation as “Christians” for the first time. And it all happened in a Gentile-dominated, morally corrupt city! They were no longer Gentile Christians or Jewish Christians. They were simply “Christian” to the glory of God!
Acts 11:27-30 is a fitting end to this section of the cross-cultural expansion of the church. Here, Christians at Antioch began a food-drive to support their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. James Boice comments: “As far as I know, this is the first charitable act of this nature in all recorded history–one race of people collecting money to help another people.” This is a telltale sign that Jews and Gentiles–people from polar opposite parts of the spectrum–had become one within the church, the Body of Christ. What a glimpse of the true church–a collection of dissimilar people! This expression of the church was empowered by the Holy Spirit and energized to take the reconciling Gospel to all people, everywhere! The true church has not been called to philosophize about a future world but to demonstrate the working of the coming Kingdom within this present evil age.
How will the people of God, enabled by the Spirit of God, handle the friction that could easily divide, distort, and destroy the body-witness of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ? I urge you not look to “best practices,” especially to the efforts of the early church. Look to Holy Spirit-led “bridge-people” like Barnabas. Not only is Barnabas a great role model for the character that is recommended for cross-cultural leadership, his influence in the church at Antioch also serves as a goal for Christians in a very crucial way.
Jesus is the only “Builder” of His church; and He is building His church right in the middle of a world that is alienated from God and from each other. To borrow from Dr. Dianne Langberg, Jesus wants to take common people like you and me and make us extraordinary. Lord, please raise up more Barnabases!