In Matthew 28, Jesus gave the discipleship directive: go into the world and make disciples, with the outward expression—baptizing them—and the process of accomplishing the task—teaching them—included in the command.
A New Testament church that fulfilled this directive was the church at Antioch—truly a disciple-making community.
To grasp fully the amazing aspects of what this church accomplished, we must understand both its setting and how it started. Some anonymous preachers from Cyprus and Cyrene arrived in Antioch and preached the Gospel for the first time broadly in a Gentile community. These evangelists preached where there was no prior Gospel witness. No prior converts! Antioch was a city of six to eight hundred thousand people. It had a small Jewish community, but no prior reference to the Gospel at all in the Gentile community. It was religiously pluralistic, with temples to all kinds of pagan deities. In that context, large numbers of people were converting to Jesus.
The Jerusalem church heard what was happening and sent Barnabas to check it out. Barnabas arrived, not as an encourager, but as an inquisitor. He arrived in Antioch, surveyed the situation, and pronounced it good. He then decided to travel about ninety miles to Tarsus to find Saul, who we also know as Paul. When he found him, they went back to Antioch and, according to Acts 11:26, For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers.
This is the summary description of the teaching ministry at Antioch. But the summary leaves us with a pressing question—taught what? What was in the curriculum? The Bible gives no description or even a summary of what was taught.
AN INTERPRETIVE PERSPECTIVE
After studying the Antioch church for about two decades, I became president of Golden Gate Seminary. In observing the seminary’s academic function, I discovered a means by which we can discern what was taught in Antioch. At the seminary, we have a wonderful faculty who work hard behind the scenes on something many would find quite boring—curriculum design.
We have a ninety-hour master of divinity degree. This degree consists of many classes. Curriculum design means that all those classes must fit together into an integrated whole that delivers a comprehensive educational product. We measure its effectiveness by the changes observed in students. Curriculum design focuses on learning objectives and learning outcomes. In short, we have a teaching plan measured not by what we claim to teach, but by the life change reflected in student behavior.
Learning outcomes describe what graduates can do when they leave. No matter what we claim is in our curriculum, what we claim as learning objectives, or what we emphasize as learning outcomes, the content of a seminary education is revealed by what graduates can do. The outcomes reveal what was really learned, thus what was really taught in the classroom.
Studying the church at Antioch from this perspective reveals what was taught by Barnabas and Paul. When we observe what these early Christians were doing in the first year or two of their church’s existence, we can discern what they were taught. Remember, they were a blank slate, without any Christian background. In very short order, they were doing amazing things. The only explanation for their behavior is they were doing what they had been taught.
Remember, these Antioch Christians just months before had never heard the name of Jesus Christ, had no awareness of the Gospel, had never been to Vacation Bible School, had not attended a Sunday School, had no concept of Christian worship or work. Paul and Barnabas were teaching recent converts the most essential aspects of Christian faith and practice.
Within a year, or at the most two, these irreligious people became one of the most influential churches in human history. What were they doing, and what does this reveal about the core curriculum for a disciple-making community? Luke summarized life in the Antioch church in short descriptions of two different worship services held during the first year after Barnabas and Paul arrived (Acts 11:27-29 and 13:1-3).
In those days some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine throughout the Roman world. This took place during the time of Claudius. So each of the disciples, according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brothers who lived in Judea.
In the church that was at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen, a close friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them to.” Then after they had fasted, prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them off.
CHRISTIAN WORSHIP PRACTICES
The most obvious change in Antioch was how they now worshipped. Prior to the arrival of the Gospel, worship in Antioch meant sacrificing an animal or visiting a temple prostitute. These early believers demonstrated they had learned to gather for worship, listen to preaching and teaching, give offerings, and send missionaries. They had learned to “minister to the Lord,” pray, fast, and lay hands on people as a symbol of their support. They had also learned how to discern the Holy Spirit speaking through a preacher (Agabus) and through the congregation (communicating the call to Paul and Barnabas).
It’s easy to miss how significant these practices were in that context. All of them were learned quickly by these new believers. Today, we often assume, “Everyone knows how to worship.” That’s not true! Paul and Barnabas taught new believers how to worship. We must do the same.
A second major part of the curriculum was financial stewardship, particularly giving. The Antioch church heard about a coming famine in Jerusalem from Agabus. Notice the very careful wording of verse 29: So, each of the disciples according to his ability, determined to send relief.
Pay attention to the detail! This is not the church cutting a check from its mission budget and sending it for famine relief. Read it again: each of the disciples, according to his ability. This is an offering given by individuals—each in proportion to their resources.
Why is this little snippet of text so important? Proportional giving by believers! Do you see the distinction? Very early in their Christian commitment, these new believers were taught to give proportionally—to give a percentage of what they had in relation to their resources. The poor gave a little, the rich gave a lot.
How did they know to do this? They were taught to give as a basic tenet of discipleship.
You may think, “Everybody knows that’s how Christians give.” We give a tithe, a percentage of our income, to practice giving proportionately. Many of us have given to building programs with the slogan, “not equal gifts but equal sacrifice.” We assume everyone knows this is how Christians give. But they don’t! New believers must be taught proportional giving to meet Kingdom needs.
Doing this flies in the face of contemporary counsel to avoid talking about money at church. It also contradicts the myth that you shouldn’t confront new Christians about giving. They did at Antioch! We avoid teaching this important discipleship subject at our peril.
Southern Baptists once believed stewardship was a priority. We had a national commission to promote it, had this role represented on state convention staffs, and routinely taught it in churches. Sadly, those days are gone. Now we focus on raising funds, not raising stewards.
In America today, the most prevalent sin among Christians is our materialism and greed. Preachers are afraid to confront it as a core problem and offer the training needed to correct poor stewardship. We must reject the lie, “you can’t talk about money at church,” and begin to deal more intentionally with this crucial area of life.
KNOWING AND SHARING THE GOSPEL
God’s people must learn to worship and give. But the heart of their discipleship must always be the Gospel.
This worshipping, giving church was passionate about the Gospel. It was the Gospel that drove them. They so embodied the life of Christ that these disciples were the first to be called Christians. Not merely believers, though they were. But Christians—Christ followers.
They shared the Gospel effectively in their city. Many people kept coming to faith in Christ. But they also shared the Gospel outside their community. They sent Paul and Barnabas to start churches around the Mediterranean world. They were the first church to intentionally send missionaries. This is the beginning of the missionary movement reaching to our day.
Beyond that, in Acts 15, the Antioch church sent a delegation to Jerusalem to solve the conflict over the nature of the Gospel. Must it include circumcision or not? Thank God the church at Antioch won the day, because circumcision was rejected and salvation by grace through faith alone was accepted.
Where do you think they got that idea? I think they got it from Paul—who may have field-tested while teaching in Antioch the language he later used to write the Ephesians—by grace you are saved, through faith, and not of works lest any man should boast.
We often think we need to disciple someone for years before encouraging them to start sharing the Gospel. We think it even takes longer before they can understand and defend the Gospel. The Antioch model mandates a different conclusion. Younger believers can understand the Gospel, share the Gospel, defend the Gospel, and support those who travel to spread the Gospel. These are not graduate program issues! They are the basics of Christian discipleship.
The Gospel is not defended primarily in some seminary classroom far from your church. It is not lived or shared by some other Christians in some other place. Your church members can learn, defend, share, and extend the Gospel.
The brand new believers at Antioch literally changed the world with the Gospel! We must challenge believers, even newer believers, to do the same thing.