Dr. Sam Storms delivered a message entitled, “Why Antioch” on Monday evening March 3rd at the opening session of the Antioch Network of Churches Exploratory meeting. Dr. Storms was kind enough to provide for us a manuscript of his message in its entirety. What you’re about to read is the biblical philosophy of ministry of the ANC. Enjoy!
Dr. Sam Storms
Enjoying God Ministries
Why Antioch?(Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-3)
My single, simple question is: “Why Antioch?” What biblical reasons are there to launch and build this network of churches around the model that we find in that ancient city and church?
Antioch was approximately 350 miles north of Jerusalem and is located in what is now southeastern Turkey and is known as Antakya(pop. 40,000). It was the third largest city in the Greco-Roman world, behind only Alexandria and Rome. Its population ranged anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000. But what was most impressive about this city was the birth therein of a community of believing men and women whose zeal for God and the gospel is worthy of our close attention.
I would like to propose for our consideration a dozen characteristics or spiritual features of the church in Antioch, each of which is worthy of our imitation.
12 Characteristics of the church at Antioch
(1) The Christians in Antioch cherished and prized the gospel more than they did staying alive (Acts 11:19). We know this because the gospel itself was proclaimed in Antioch because of persecution. These persecuted evangelists would not have hidden this from the people in Antioch. They would have made quite clear that if you choose to follow Jesus you will suffer persecution and tribulation. The people in Antioch willingly and no doubt joyfully embraced the inevitability of persecution and suffering. Evidently the gospel of Jesus Christ was sufficiently precious to these people that no threat of persecution or oppression or deprivation could deter them from embracing him in faith and love.
(2) They were energetically and enthusiastically evangelistic (Acts 11:24). “And a great many people were added to the Lord.” This no doubt came about not only through the witness of Barnabas but also those of Antioch who immediately upon coming to faith in turn witnessed to others!
(3) They were hungry for and obedient to the whole counsel of God (Acts 11:25-26). From Acts 20:17-30 (esp. v. 27) we see the focus of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, which no doubt would have been true also in Antioch. He refused to shrink back from declaring the whole counsel of God and those in Antioch would have heartily embraced this as well. No cutting of doctrinal corners. No accommodation to the values of the prevailing culture. No selectivity in what they proclaimed based on what would enhance their status or increase their financial wealth.
(4) They were a compassionate and generous people. (Acts 11:27-30). Note well that this monetary gift was from Gentiles to Jews! They refused to let any past wounds or offences or lingering prejudices to hinder their love.
This display of generosity may well have been connected with their practice of fasting (Acts 13:1-3). In Isaiah 58:1-3 God issues an indictment against his people for giving every external appearance of godliness, especially as seen in their fasting. But it was not the sort of fast that God approved. True, heartfelt, godly fasting entails compassion and generosity for those in need:
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isa. 58:6-7)
Evidently the Christians at Antioch believed that the gospel of salvation in Christ required that they devote themselves to the alleviation of hunger and poverty. They did not fear social justice. They pursued it with self-sacrificial abandonment.
(5) They were thoroughly and wholeheartedly Christocentric (Acts 11:27-30). When the surrounding community in Antioch sought to identify these people, what word did they choose, and why? They were not merely “theists” or “believers” or “brethren” or “disciples” or “saints” or even “Baptists”! The key was Jesus Christ. This title was probably given to them by the people of Antioch as they no doubt heard little else from this band of people than Christ! He was the foundation of their identity: not any particular doctrine or church structure or denominational program or theory about private prayer language.
They would never have identified themselves as white Christians, black Christians, or Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians or male Christians or female Christians or continuationist Christians or cessationist Christians. They were simply and solely and sufficiently Christians: partisans of Christ and Christ alone.
(6) They were committed to a convergence of word and spirit (Acts 13:1). If only teachers had been present they would never have known who was to go or what they were to do or where it was that God was sending them or when they should depart. No Scripture could provide such answers.
On the other hand, if only prophets had been present they wouldn’t have known that going was a good thing. They wouldn’t have known how to test the voice or how to judge the leading of the Spirit; they would have had no one to instruct them about what to say once they got there!
Word and Spirit were not rivals in Antioch. Teachers and Prophets did not compete but cooperated in the work of God.
(7) They were sincerely, and not merely theoretically, multi-ethnic (Acts 13:1). Simeon, called Niger, was probably a black African and may have been the same Simon who carried our Lord’s cross to Calvary(cf. Luke 23:26). Lucius of Cyrene was from North Africa, probably present day Libya.
When I say they were “sincerely” and not merely “theoretically” multi-ethnic I mean that this was not just a principle of doctrine they embraced but also something that was implemented in the life and leadership of the church. There must be a reason why these names are listed and not others, and the likelihood is that they constituted the senior leadership of the church, elders and pastors, as well as teachers and prophets.
(8) The diversity in Antioch was not merely racial but also social and economic (Acts 13:1. Manaen, described as “a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch” was either raised as an adopted brother or close companion of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. He obviously came from a high social standing and was probably quite wealthy as a result of his royal connections.
(9) They were a thoroughly God-intoxicated and theocentric. Note their “worshipping” (lit., “ministering”) in Acts 13:2. Their conscious and deliberate focus was on exultation in God and the exaltation of God.
(10) They were passionately committed to the enjoyment of God. In other words, the people at Antioch were Christian Hedonists (Acts 13:2-3). I base this on the fact that they were given over to regular fasting, combined with prayer. But how is this evidence of Christian Hedonism?
The key is to remember that fasting is always motivated by deep desire. Whereas there is certainly a measure of physical pain that comes with fasting, I want to insist that, contrary to popular opinion, fasting is not the suppression of desire but the intense pursuit of it. We fast because we want something more than food. We say no to food for a season only to fill ourselves with something far more tasty, far more filling, far more satisfying. That is to say, if one suppresses the desire for food it is only because he or she has a greater and more intense desire for something more precious. Something of eternal value.
We don’t fast because we hate our bodies and look to punish them. Whatever immediate discomfort we may experience, it is a sacrifice that pays immeasurable long-term benefits. We do not fast for pain, but for the pleasure of experiencing still more of Christ Jesus and the revelation of his powerful presence. In other words, fasting is perfectly consistent with Christian Hedonism!
Observe the connection here of fasting with prayer. Fasting sharpens and intensifies our intercessory prayers. Arthur Wallis has noted that
“Fasting is calculated to bring a note of urgency and importunity into our praying, and to give force to our pleading in the court of heaven. The man who prays with fasting is giving heaven notice that he is truly earnest . . . . Not only so, but he is expressing his earnestness in a divinely-appointed way. He is using a means that God has chosen to make his voice to be heard on high” (42).
Fasting, therefore, is feasting! So what do you eat when you’re on a fast? God! The ironic thing about fasting is that it really isn’t about not eating food. It’s about feeding on the fullness of every divine blessing secured for us in Christ. Fasting tenderizes our hearts to experience the presence of God. It expands the capacity of our souls to hear his voice and be assured of his love and be filled with the fullness of his joy.
As strange as it may sound, fasting is all about eating! It is about ingesting the Word of God, the beauty of God, the presence of God, the blessings of God. Fasting is all about spiritual gluttony! It is not a giving up of food for its own sake. It is about a giving up of food for Christ’s sake. As Jesus himself made clear in Matthew 6:16-18, either we abstain from food for the praise of men or for the reward of our heavenly Father. The point is, we are always driven to fast because we hunger for something more than food. Fasting, therefore, is motivated by the prospect of pleasure. The heart that fasts cries out, “This I want more than the pleasure of food!” And “this” can be the admiration that men give to people with will power, or it can be the reward we seek from God alone without regard to the praise of men.
(11) They were sensitive to and discerning of the Spirit’s voice (Acts 13:2). There were no cessationists in Antioch. They were not afraid of the Spirit’s supernatural voice. Far from legislating against it, they set aside time in worship, prayer, and fasting to tune their spiritual ears to whatever he might say.
How did the Holy Spirit communicate this message? He likely revealed his will to one or several of the prophets who in turn submitted the revelation to the teachers and apostles to be judged. Was it by a strong impression, a vision, a word? Cf. 8:29; 10:19; 15:28; 16:6-7; 18:9; 20:23. Note well that the Holy Spirit spoke in complete sentences!
It’s important to note when the revelation occurred: while they were “worshipping the Lord and fasting”! There is a special sensitivity and openness during such times. Fasting opens our spiritual ears to discern God’s voice. The gentle words of the Spirit are more readily heard during times of fasting. During times of fasting God often grants insights and understanding into his will and purpose, or perhaps new applications of his Word to our lives.
Their fasting became the occasion for the Spirit’s guidance to be communicated to them. Don’t miss the obvious causal link that Luke draws. It was while or when they were ministering to the Lord and fasting that the Holy Spirit spoke. Indeed, it would not be too much to say it was because they ministered to the Lord and fasted that He spoke. I’m not suggesting that fasting puts God in our debt, as if it compels him to respond to us. But God doespromise to be found by those who diligently seek him with their whole heart (Jer. 29:12-13). People who are merely “open” to God rarely find him. God postures himself to be found by those who whole-heartedly seek him, and fasting is a single-minded pursuit to know, hear, and experience God.
(12) They had a heart for the nations. They were a missions-minded church (Acts 13:3).
Here we see Saul (Paul) and Barnabas, together with leaders of the church in Antioch, seeking direction from the Lord as to where they should go as a church, in terms of ministry. Their desperation to hear God’s voice and follow God’s will could find no more appropriate expression than through bodily denial. As they turned away from physical dependence on food they cast themselves in spiritual dependence on God. “Yes, Lord, we love food. We thank you for it. We enjoy it as you want us to. But now, O Lord, there is something before us more important than filling our mouths and quenching our thirst. Where would you have us go? Whom shall we send? How shall it be financed? Lord, we hunger to know your will. Lord, we thirst for your direction. Feed us O God!”
What God said to them in the course of their fasting changed history. This revelatory word was spoken in a moment of spiritual hunger for God’s voice to fill the void left by mere human wisdom. The results, both immediate and long-term, are stunning, for prior to this incident the church had progressed little, if at all, beyond the eastern seacoast of the Mediterranean.
Paul had as yet taken no missionary journeys westward to Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, or Spain. Neither had he written any of his epistles. All his letters were the result of the missionary journeys he was to take and the churches he was to plant. This occasion of prayer and fasting, it would seem, “resulted in a missions movement that would catapult Christianity from obscurity into being the dominant religion of the Roman Empire within two and a half centuries, and would yield 1.3 billion adherents of the Christian religion today, with a Christian witness in virtually every country of the world. And thirteen out of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament (Paul’s letters) were a result of the ministry that was launched in this historic moment of prayer and fasting” (John Piper, A Hunger for God, 107).