There’s this quote that always provokes my imagination. It was written when the church was being decimated by the Roman Empire—when Christians were being fed to lions, imprisoned, crucified, etc. Despite the power and brutality of the Roman empire, Caesar Hadrian was stumped as to why he couldn’t crush these Christians and silence them for good.
He sent Aristides to infiltrate the church and get some answers. After observing these Christians, Aristides wrote to Caesar:
“They love one another, and he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him into their own homes and rejoice over him as a very brother. And if there is any among them that are poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food. Such, O King, is their manner of life, and verily, this is a new people, and there is something divine in the midst of them.”
This story reveals what the gospel makes possible. It demonstrates the world-changing power of our collective witness as people who love one another and sacrifice for the poor. It boldly contradicts the predominant culture’s message that we should think of ourselves first and the community we belong to second.
God calls his church to be a counterculture embedded within the predominant one so the world can see Christ in our midst.
God calls his church to be a counterculture embedded within the predominant one so the world can see Christ in our midst. And through our collective witness, his glory spreads over all the earth.
So how do we lead our people to behold these gospel possibilities? How do we become a new people, a kingdom-minded counterculture? Acts 13:1–3 provides two examples of how church leaders can do this.
Fight for Harmony
If we’re to become this counterculture, if our collective lives are going to shine like a star in the darkness, then we must fight for harmony among ourselves. And if you think relational harmony is impossible amid the charged environments we live in today, let’s consider what the church at Antioch’s small groups might have looked like. “Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul” (Acts 13:1).
We must reject our natural impulses to make war and instead fight for harmony.
Barnabas, nicknamed the “son of encouragement,” was giving all he had to the church (Acts 4:36–37) while Saul had been the former leader in persecuting the church (Acts 8:1–3). Then there’s Manaen, a lifelong friend of a man who had John the Baptist beheaded (Matt. 14:1–12) and sent Jesus to Pilate to be crucified (Luke 23:7–12). There’s more. Barnabas is from Cyprus. Lucius from Cyrene is an African. Simeon’s of unknown origin, but they called him Niger. Manaen is Palestinian, and Saul is Turkish.
This is a very diverse group. I’m no romantic; I know there was some tension in that group, even as they prayed and fasted together. There’s just relational conflict sometimes, and they had plenty to overcome. And if we want to be something new, if we’re going to be part of the kingdom culture, then we better be able to extend the grace God’s shown us to others. We must reject our natural impulses to make war and instead fight for harmony.
Be Serious About God’s Presence and Voice
If we’re going to be a counterculture that stands in contrast to the world around us, we must be serious about the presence of God and hearing from God. “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2–3).
I think our lack of theological understanding around Satan and demons is killing us. I don’t think we take too seriously Paul’s words about how our fight is not with flesh and blood, but “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). If we truly believed what Paul said, we’d be praying with force. Too often, when we encounter problems, we run to our whiteboards when we should be dropping to our knees. The war is won in the heavenlies, not on the dry erase board.
Too often, when we encounter problems, we run to our whiteboards when we should be dropping to our knees. The war is won in the heavenlies, not on the dry erase board.
But the Antioch church understood the enemy. We know because they spent a lot of time praying and fasting. The primary way we hear and understand our God and where he’s leading us is by steeping in his Word. We need to be people of the Book. We should be accused of always beginning our sentences with, “Like the Word says . . .” and we need to be people of prayer. If you struggle in prayer, learn. How? Just get with people who pray all the time or pray all the time with people. Fumbling, goofy, awkward prayer is still prayer. Just pray what you got.
When we look back on Christian history, we see that when the church embraces the call to be a community of faith, we create a kingdom counterculture that demonstrates that the God of the Bible is the one true God. And really profound things happen. That’s how this diverse group of former enemies in Antioch united together to worship and fast, pray and send out, and plant churches all over the world.
Pastors and planters, see what’s possible in the gospel! May our collective witness as a global, diverse community of healthy, multiplying churches show the world something new to them but ancient in us. We will have to fight for this—Satan will hate every bit of it. We will likely be persecuted. And to all of this, I say: It’ll sting, but let it come. Let it come. We’re built for this, church.