3.12 Acts -- Beginnings of Outreach
The first tentative forays into the pagan world are recorded in the last half of Acts 11:
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to 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.
News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch....a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch (Acts 11:19-26).
Despite the fact that this passage occurs after Cornelius' conversion, the first events it describes happened earlier, during the first wave of persecution. In accordance with the old policy of excluding Gentiles, those who fled Judea spread the teaching of the Kingdom primarily to Jews. However, "some of them,...men from Cyprus and Cyrene," spoke to Greeks in Antioch. This is the first intentional mission work to Greeks, and it was done by Hellenistic Jews from North Africa and the island of Cyprus. The leadership of the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas, a Levite convert and native of Cyprus, to oversee the church in Antioch. And it was Barnabas, in turn, who brought Paul on board. Paul was then living in Tarsus, his hometown, a city about a hundred miles from Antioch. This was where Paul and Barnabas hammered out the apologetics that they would use in their missionary journeys for the next 25 years.
Another link to the Old Testament was the sending of a group of "prophets" from Jerusalem to Antioch. This is extremely interesting, because of the long prophetic tradition in the Old Testament, as well as the absence of accredited prophets in the intertestamental period. John the Baptist was the only recent prophet, and his role was to act as a forerunner of Jesus. Then Jesus assumed the prophetic role. But what happened after his Ascension? We can assume that there was a re-institution of the prophetic gift subsequent to Pentecost, but the Bible provides no details about when or how this happened. There is no mention of the calling of prophets, and only a few are known by name: Agabus, Judas Barsabbas, and Silas. We know that women could be prophets -- such as Philip's four unmarried daughters (Acts 21:8-9). Apparently, none of the disciples was considered a prophet. But was there a school of prophets, as in the Old Testament? How did one get to be appointed a prophet? Are there true prophets and false prophets in the New Testament as well as the Old? All this is missing from the history of Acts. The sending of the prophets from Jerusalem to Antioch was both a gesture of acceptance of the Gentiles, and a way to control them.
But Paul and Barnabas were not destined to remain as local leaders of the church in Antioch:
In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:1-3).
Much is made of the supposed racial makeup of the church leadership: "Simeon called 'Black'", also Lucius from North Africa. There is a difference between the Old Testament appellation "the Cushite" and the New Testament Black ("Niger"). The first is a statement of origin, the latter is a nickname. We do not know why he was called "Black." It is possible that he was given this nickname to distinguish him from the apostle Peter, also named Simeon (see Acts 15:14). The term "Niger" is used nowhere else in the New Testament. Lucius, being from Africa (near modern Benghazi in Libya), may also have been dark-skinned.
Of more significance is the fact that the church at Antioch had its own eldership with sufficient authority to commission apostles. They did not have to get the approval of Jerusalem to ordain teachers and missionaries.