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A lot of narrative passages in Scripture require us to slow down. The first three verses of Acts 13, for example, are packed with insight into the early church, particularly the Christians in Antioch. We learn about their mission, how decisions were made, and how the gospel had transformed the community in remarkable ways.
But perhaps the most remarkable truth we learn, when we slow down and consider this passage and its background, is how forced migration helped to build the church of Antioch—and how God still uses it today.
Forced Migration as Mission
In AD 31–32, the church of Antioch had been founded by two different groups. One consisted of Greek-speaking Jewish believers who’d fled to Antioch due to the persecution of Stephen (Acts 11:19).
Forced migration is often the means that propels God’s mission. Joseph was forced to Egypt; Elimelech and Naomi were pushed to Moab in search of food; Israel was dispersed and deported. In the early parts of Genesis, forced migration often occurs due to divine judgment: think Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:23), Cain (Gen. 4:12), and Babel (Gen. 11:8). Moving is not considered a good thing. The prophet Micah presents the ideal of every Israelite having land to work and produce (Mic. 4:4).
One way the gospel spread in the first century was through the involuntary scattering of believers, who became gospel heralds in their new locales. In Acts 8:4, those dispersed due to Saul’s persecution went “place to place, proclaiming the word” after Stephen was killed. In our current context, migration is again driving mission, perhaps like no other time in history.
Migration is again driving mission, perhaps like no other time in history.
Diaspora believers are a strategic missionary force, and often the distinction between missionary and migrant becomes blurred. Still, the most significant counterweight to a secularizing Europe is the steady influx of Christian immigrants from Africa and Asia. Faith-bearing migrants are carrying their religious convictions to different locations around the world, especially back to Western countries that originally sent missionaries.
Organized mission, more than involuntary migration, is what drove Christianity outside of the West in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, migration (involuntary or otherwise) is driving mission. North America, long a target of European migration, is receiving migrants from Asia and the Middle East. Europe, long a place of emigration, is receiving persons from Africa and the Middle East—especially from places of conflict.
Unknown Missionaries on Mission
I mentioned that two groups had founded the church in Antioch. The second consisted of unknown missionaries (Acts 11:20). We don’t get their names, which is worth pondering. Within God’s kingdom there are so many “unknown” laborers. I feel very connected to what’s going on around the world, and yet I’m constantly meeting new folks doing amazing work beyond anything I was aware of. There are many unknown heroes that would be worth reading about—those who don’t look like us or share our stories.
Consider reading about saints from the past like Apolo Kivebulaya, Byang Kato, Vedanayagam Azariah, or Pandita Ramabai. There are thousands more like them today, planting churches that will become mission-sending bodies—like the one in first-century Antioch.
One of the joys of heaven will be meeting all of these people. The stories we’ll swap will surprise and overwhelm. When we sing, “As saints of old still line the way, retelling triumphs of his grace,” we typically have in mind heroes we know about. We think of Hebrews 11. But the list includes unknown names, too—believers like those from Cyprus and Cyrene.
Sending of the Persecuting Founder
Fourteen years pass between Acts 11:19–20 and Acts 13. But follow the story closely. The gospel starts in Jerusalem. Believers end up in Antioch, due to persecution from Saul. The Antioch church grows. Gentiles are coming to faith. Barnabas travels there to help and recruits Saul—the cause of believers being there in the first place. And now that church, founded by those whom Saul persecuted, sends him out as its missionary. Read that again. The church in Antioch, founded by those whom Saul persecuted, sends him out as its missionary.
It hasn’t even been that long. Some of the believers laying hands on Saul would’ve been those who were forced to move because of him. Some of them would have known Stephen. But the gospel had so transformed them that they were able to learn from him for a year and then send him out with their blessing.
I’m reminded of my last visit to an Afghan church. The pastor was a former religious police officer in Afghanistan. That day, he translated the sermon for a Korean missionary who had been held captive by the Taliban for over 40 days.
This is what the gospel can do to people. It can unite former enemies in a common mission mandated by the sovereign King who has saved them. It can transform hearts of people forced to migrate out of their holy city, to the immoral cesspool of Antioch, to the point of welcoming their persecutor and deploying him to further the mission.
Three Action-Packed Verses
So as you read the narrative of Acts, read slowly, find the historical connections, and look for the relationships between the people and churches mentioned. The mission of the church in Antioch comes full circle, founded by migrants forced to move, then sending its persecutor on mission to plant more churches.
Considering the historical development of events as they unfold will deepen your understanding of the steps the early church took toward fulfilling its mandate to make Jesus known among the nations. There is a lot to learn when we read slowly.