Sometimes there are significant bits of the gospel story it would be easy to miss as they’re mentioned in passing, or just as part of the background. Here, it’s the church in Antioch, with its prophets and teachers, that sends Barnabas and Saul in mission at the leading of the Spirit. It’s not just the church in Jerusalem, led by the apostles, that is carrying the mission forward now. At the end of this passage, we see that the Jerusalem church still has a key role in guiding the developing faith, but it’s no longer the single centre through which God is driving everything.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that there are other big changes beginning, as the mission of which we’re told by Luke begins to shift from the Jews to the Gentiles. That’s only part of the story, of course. Mission was still spreading through Israel and the Jewish diaspora, and Thomas was taking the gospel east to India. But Luke concentrates on the westward spread of the faith into the Roman Empire, through Paul above all. As this is the story of expansion which shaped most of the New Testament, it’s easy to forget about the others!
At first, Barnabas and Saul continue their practice of preaching first in the synagogues, first to the Jews. They evangelise by retelling and reinterpreting the shared story of Israel, taking what their hearers know and share with them and showing that Israel’s doesn’t lead quite where they thought it did, but to Jesus and the new fulfilment of God’s Kingdom in opening up his love and purpose to the nations.
We’re not told yet quite how they preach once they realise that they’re no longer getting a hearing in the synagogue, and preach straight to the Gentiles. But it does seem that they’re not really prepared for the reaction they get in Lystra (Acts 14:8-18). They’ve been used to arguing with Jewish scholars over the text and interpretation of the Old Testament. Now they have to persuade the crowds that they are not gods. Without the shared understanding of God they could take for granted in the synagogue, perhaps they had to learn the hard way to take a few steps back to lay some foundations before the pagan Gentiles could begin to take on board what they were trying to tell them.
I can’t help seeing parallels in our own day. We can no longer try to preach the gospel based on the assumption that most of those to whom we speak know the basics of what we’re talking about, or even understand the language that we take for granted. We need to develop new ways of speaking about God, which make sense to people without a sense of a shared story we can help them to reinterpret.
With this new step in the explosion of mission, the whole church has to make some decisions. Will there be one model of faith to be required of all believers, involving (in effect) becoming Jewish in order to be Christian? Or will distinctive patterns of faith be allowed to develop in mission?
Led by James, the respected and conservative leader, the church in Jerusalem decided the latter. For new situations in mission, diverse ways of being church (within some very broad rules) were needed. They still are.