Reading: Acts 13-14
The first twelve chapters of Acts are very different than what we generally experience — everything was unplanned. While Jesus gave the disciples the great commission, there was no plan to fulfill it, people just went where fate put them and they said and did what came to them. The Holy Spirit was active, and everything was exciting — but it seemed like it took an act of the Holy Spirit to get people to take what Jesus taught and commanded them seriously.
Suddenly, we are getting to something that paints a very different picture. Acts 13, 14, and later 15 shows us a picture of something that we are far more familiar with, committee meetings and business meetings. After seeing God giving visions to Peter to tell him where to preach next, it seems rather pedestrian to see something planned by committee; there is a part of me that wonders what happened to the spectacular miracles and visions. Another part of me realizes that it took a miracle for Peter to preach the Gospel to the gentiles — but, now that the miracle happened, the walls were torn down and people were acting according to the new reality.
Acts 13 begins with the Antioch church forming a missions board so that they can send out an expedition. One thing that stands out about this missions board is that they are not the refugees who escaped from Jerusalem; they are instead an international community that somehow settled in Alexandria independently of the persecution that spread Christianity to the city. This committee was a Cosmopolitan committee; its members were not provincial but were citizens of the world. Simeon and Lucius were Africans, possibly both from Cyrene which is in modern-day Libya. Barnabas, in spite of his Aramaic name, was from the Greek Island of Cyprus. Manaen was a member of Herod’s court and was a trusted friend of Herod Antipas since his childhood, and of course, Saul of Tarsus was from a Roman city in Asia Minor which is modern day Turkey.
The committee chose two of its members, Paul and Barnabas, who were especially qualified for this trip — the trip was a trip to their homelands, Cyprus and Asia Minor. They chose two people who lived their entire lives with one foot in the Jewish world, and another foot in the Greek world. Paul not only grew up in a Greek culture, but he was born in a Roman colony and enjoyed the privilege of Roman citizenship. Paul and Barnabas were fluent in the language and thoughts of the Greeks, and also fluent in the language and thoughts of the Jews.
The trip was also somewhat successful — the proconsul of Cyprus wanted to hear what Paul and Barnabas had to say, and Acts 13:12 tells us that he believed. When they went to Asia Minor, they were invited to preach at the synagogue after the reading of the law and prophets — and when they preached the resurrection of Christ they were invited to preach again the following week. The second week, they were not as well received at the synagogue, but they very deliberately preached the Gospel among the Gentiles and had a number of conversions.
The trip, however, ended badly. In Lystra, they healed a lame man, and the people thought that Paul and Barnabas were gods; they decided that Barnabas must be Zeus, the king of the gods and that Paul must be Hermes, the divine messenger. A priest of Zeus prepared offerings to sacrifice in the honor of Barnabas/Zeus, and of course Paul and Barnabas did everything in their power to communicate that there were men, not gods. Eventually, the Jewish community managed to convince the Lystrans that these were men, so the crowds responded to this revelation by throwing rocks at them until they were convinced that they had killed them; after this, they returned home.
What stands out to me is that this is what we might call the birth of the institutional church. I know that people groan at committees and business meetings, and we don’t see them as exciting, but God’s work can happen in church meetings. I know that we often look at the work of the Spirit, and the work of institutions as going against each other — but, Acts reminds me that institutions are powerful. One man with a vision is limited by what that single man can do. Institutions pool resources and share the work. Institutions make missionary efforts possible, they make church plantings possible, they make it possible to build a support network, they make relief and long-term charitable efforts possible. I know there are people who don’t much like organized religion, nor the work of organizing — but, I’ve started to notice that there isn’t really non-organized religion so much as poorly organized religion. Everything that the Church does and everything the church is called to do requires organization — the mission of the church is the mission of an assembly of people, not the mission of individuals. Without committees, there are no church plants, no hospitals, no schools, no food banks nor soup kitchens nor missions. All of these things are too big for an individual with a calling and a vision.
I know that we glamorize Paul and Barnabas, who actually went, but we should not forget that the background work that made this trip possible was done by the whole committee: Simeon, Lucius, and Manaen were all involved in this work, even though they did not make the trip themselves. As difficult as it is to get excited about committee meetings, they are important. Without committees, those things that are too hard for one person don’t get done.