The level of racial tension in the U.S. right now is very high. And I am afraid that even Christians have not become immune to this deadly virus. We can so easily respond by cocooning in our own ethnic environment. But this is certainly not the Lord’s will and destructive to our mission and calling in the world. The Lord has taught us how very important collaboration is between different ethnic groups by revealing to us the ethnic make-up of the leadership in the church in Antioch. The disciples were very intentional about keeping a multi-ethnic church together in the face of Jew and Gentile tensions. They were not willing to let each ethnic group start their own separate church. If you look at the leadership of the church in Antioch you will see the face, or faces, of integration.
Acts 13:1 says, “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.” The names that are given here actually tell us a lot about the people who formed the leadership and teaching team of the church in Antioch.
Barnabas is really quite well known. We are introduced to him in Acts 4:36, 37. His name was Joseph and he was a Levite from Cyprus. The apostles called him Barnabas which means “son of Encouragement,” or simply an encourager. Being from Cyprus we was a Hellenistic Jew which meant his principle language was Greek and he was immersed in the Greek culture. If I would put a face on Barnabas it would be this one:
The next leader of the church mentioned in this passage is Simeon called Niger. Because there were probably other men named Simeon they distinguished him by calling him by a Latin name, Niger, which means black. Now to call somebody black in a location and place where most everybody had a darker skin tone, probably means he had very dark complexion. So Niger was a black man most likely from Africa. If I would put a face on Niger he would look like the portrait to the left.
The third person listed on the leadership council of the church in Antioch is Lucius of Cyrene. Once again the name Lucius was common in the Roman world so they added where he was from in order to distinguish him. He was from Cyrene. This is a place in North Africa close to where Libya is today. Before the Arab invasion of North Africa in the 600’s almost all of the inhabitants would be from African descent. So I think the picture to the right would look at lot like Lucius:
Next we read about Manaen. The explanation that the text gives is that he “had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch.” Literally this means that he shared the same wet nurse as Herod the Tetrarch. As was often the case in wealthy families, mothers did not nurse their own children but got a servant to do that. In any case, Manaen was very close to a very wealthy family and a close personal friend of Herod the Tetrarch, the person who had John the Baptist beheaded. Yet Manaen went down another path as God called him into leadership of the church in Antioch. Manaen would have been ethnically similar to the Palestinians today. He might have looked like the picture on the left.
Finally we come to Paul. Paul was a Hebraic Jew, born in Tarsus and raised in Jerusalem under the tutelage of Rabbi Gamaliel. Paul was a Jew of Jews, being extremely well-versed in the teachings of the Law. I would imagine Paul looking something like this:
Now, if you put these five faces together as the leadership of the church in Antioch, you can see how diverse the leadership actually was. But this diverse leadership was exactly what was needed for a multiethnic church and a mission to all the ethnic groups in the Roman Empire. Jerusalem, on the other hand, was still largely Jewish in its outlook and, in fact, sent envoys to Antioch trying to make them become more Jewish and not simply be followers of Christ in their own ethnic way. I believe this is exactly why God used the church in Antioch to be the missionary church to the entire world. You might say that because of Antioch’s diversity, they were well equipped to be able to bring the Gospel to a diverse world. They were able to let Jews be Jews, Romans be Romans, Greeks be Greeks, and Cyprians be Cyprians, all being transformed by the Spirit of Christ.
It is my strong belief that what the church of Jesus Christ needs today are diverse congregations that, because of their diversity, are more easily able to bring the Gospel to every nation, race and ethnic group in the world. May God bless us with more and more churches of diversity.