When our family moved to Northern Virginia, we told our friends, who wanted to know how we liked the area, that we’d been “Fairfaxed.” By that we meant that since moving to Fairfax and pastoring the neighboring city of Vienna, we’ve been spoiled by the good food from the rich diversity of cultures in the area. It’s the same at the apartments where we live. My neighbors are culturally from many parts of the world, which is so cool, because my wife and I have always loved experiencing new cultures. My immediate neighbor, next door, has even taught me a greeting from their country that I use every time I see them now. In addition to this, wherever we’ve lived, since we’ve been married, I’ve also felt the call to make disciples among my neighbors, but always struggled with how. Most people today don’t have close relationships with their neighbors. However we’ve lately found it easiest to relate with young parents like ourselves. We even have neighbors wanting to schedule play dates with us and their kids, which is about to develop into a small group.
It is this same passion, to make disciples in a new multicultural city, that the scattered followers of Jesus felt in Acts 11 as they fled persecution in Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen. They went up north as far as Syria to the city of Antioch. Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire after Alexandria, in Northern Africa and Rome, in Italy. It was a wealthy city on the coast, which lent itself to a lot of international business. There was a large colony of Jews there who, during the time of the Greek Empire, were offered equal citizenship, along with the Persians, Indians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans that made up it’s population. Therefore many of the Jews were becoming upwardly mobile and wealthy. At one point 1/10th of the city was Jewish. And though Antioch had many religious and cultural influences, many of them were getting tired of the many gods of the pagan religions and were increasingly attracted to Yahweh, the one God of the Jews. The New Testament and especially the book of Acts calls them the “God-fearers.” It’s in this setting that many from the newly formed church fled to from the persecution in Jerusalem.
However, not all of the Jewish followers of Jesus fled Jerusalem. The Bible tells us that the apostles and many other Jewish followers of Jesus from Judea stayed in Jerusalem. In his book “Following the Spirit”, Dr. Peter Reonnfeldt says
The injustice he’s referring to was when the Greek Jewish widows kept being over looked in the distribution of food among the church. So when these Greek Jewish followers of Jesus fled, when one of their own, Stephen, was martyred, the church in Jerusalem struggled to accept Gentiles into fellowship. In addition to this, the Jewish followers of Jesus that did flee to Antioch struggled with this same bigoted mindset, so Luke records in Acts 11:19 that they preached to “the Jews only.” And this was more than just a mere speaking to those your most comfortable talking too or have the most in common with, because earlier in the previous verse, when Peter testified, to his own nationalistic amazement, that the gentiles received the gospel and the Holy Spirit, the response of the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, who were initially upset about this, was, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.” As if Jesus didn’t already commission them to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations! So contrary to our romanticized picture of this Spirit-filled early church, this created a significant problem for the rapidly growing 1st century church. And as my wife and I, and possibly you, find ourselves in an area so rich in cultural diversity, I wonder what we can learn from their experience. How do we make disciples in a culturally diverse metropolitan area? Let’s see if we can discover how as we pick up the story in verse 20…
Don’t miss that those who initially only spoke to Jews, only get a brief mention by Luke. But then notice, in contrast, the greater emphasis and affirmation on those coming from the Mediterranean Island of Cyprus and the North African country of Cyrene who preached the gospel to the Hellenists, which is the Greeks, how God was with them and how a great number believed in Jesus. These may not have been as steeped in Nationalistic pride, having lived outside of Judea. The message is clear. Here we learn that if we’re going to make disciples in a culturally diverse metropolitan area…
the Gospel can’t be restricted to or defined by one dominant culture.
Christ is for everyone and can’t be boxed into one culture. I was at a music and worship conference at Andrews University and one of the featured speakers was a Christian Ethnomusicologist, which means she studies the development of music within cultures. And she went to a village in Africa to study the music within their culture. She had a blast diving into the rich history and cultural expression rising out of that village. She was then invited to their local Christian church worship service as their guest of honor. She reported that she was greatly disappointed with the service, because the vibrancy of cultural expression native to their village was replaced with lifeless singing that could be compared to a funeral dirge. When she inquired with a leader in that church about the vast contrast in experience, he told her that since she was of European decent, they wanted to sing some of the songs they were learning that originated out of 19th century Europe, assuming that’s what she would deem appropriate. She then addressed the entire congregation and asked them to return the following week for service and sing the songs about Jesus that originated out of their own cultural experience and expression. The difference the next service was so overwhelmingly beautiful she recorded it to show us the differences between them. They sang with a heart passion and with understanding of every lyric that was song. There was tears, movement and instruments that some of us would find offensive, as the people sang the songs that came out of their experience with Jesus and people were brought to the Lord. You see Jesus is not locked into the expression of one culture, but incarnates into every culture and transforms it by the gospel.
The Jewish believers where originally the dominant culture in the early church and either avoided the Gentiles all together or tried to make their converts as culturally Jewish as possible. This mushroomed into the 1st major crisis in the church that led to it’s first general council in Jerusalem over the issue of circumcision. If we’re going to let all these Gentiles come in here, then they need to become like us. They need to leave their natural cultural expressions behind and adopt our cultural preferences, our tastes, our songs, our instruments, all of which they assume is holy and of a higher quality than those of the cultures represented by the new believers. I’m sure Jesus had His cultural preferences based on the glorious worship in heaven. But He left heaven and stepped down into our culture, identifying with our culture, worshipping comfortably among us in our culture, though still maintaining His “cultural identity” as being fully God! Then Jesus turns to us, to follow His example and says to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations and cultures. And as the church started to do this in Antioch, it inclusively brought together all cultures under Christ that would normally be at odds, which was compellingly attractive, therefore many turned to the Lord.
You see there is a tendency for us to confuse our cultural preferences with universal Biblical principles and the gospel. The gospel enters cultures, embraces them and then transforms all cultures equally. Yet we sometimes have a tendency to superimpose our culture onto others, assuming that to be the church we all have to have the same tastes and preferences. The goal of the gospel is not to make a diverse local church European in preferences. Jesus embraces all cultures equally, giving them authentic expression amidst their variety of experiences and we should do the same.
FOLLOWER OF JESUS, HUSBAND, FATHER, PASTOR, AUTHOR & LOVER OF PEOPLE.