Bethlehem’s Antioch Moment
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 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.
The title of this message is "Bethlehem's Antioch Moment." It is a break in our journey through the Gospel of John. And the reason for the break is that sometimes Antioch moments in the history of a church need addressing.
Needing Direction for the Next Step
I get the term Antioch moment from Acts 13:1–3 where the leaders of the church in Antioch have gathered to fast and pray and worship—evidently in the hope that God would speak and give clear guidance to the church in Antioch. The church in Antioch was at a point in their history when they needed a word from God about the next crucial step. I doubt that they realized what the Holy Spirit would say, and how monumental that step would be.
But we will come back to that in a moment when we focus on the text. But first let me explain what I mean by Bethlehem's Antioch moment.
This Moment for Bethlehem
Bethlehem will be 140 years old this summer. She started as an ethnic church plant out of First Baptist Church on the other side of downtown, and became the First Swedish Baptist Church of Minneapolis in 1871. Ulysses Grant was President of the United States. The Civil War had been over for five years. Minnesota was a thirteen-year-old state.
There were 23 charter members, and they gathered in a circle and took hands on June 24, 1871, for their first prayer gathering as a church. Imagine how many Antioch moments a 140-year-old church has faced.
- The Antioch moment when the church burned down in 1875. Would the infant church survive?
- The Antioch moment of the 1890s when we had to decide whether to be a church for the nations, or only the neighborhoods. The die was cast for a hundred years: We sent out Ola and Minnie Hanson as missionaries to Burma.
- The Antioch moment in the 1930s when we had to decide whether to keep speaking Swedish only—for the immigrants—or to make the painful transition to speak English.
- The Antioch moment of the 1960s when that idyllic neighborhood downtown was shattered by the construction of two massive freeways intersecting less than a hundred feet from the sanctuary. Do we stay or do we go to the suburbs?
- The Antioch moment of the late 1980s with three morning services and one evening service for five years. Should we build a new sanctuary or not? We did. It's twenty years old this summer.
- The Antioch moment of 1990. Shall we be governed by elders or remain a church with only paid pastors and deacons? And a new constitution came into being.
- The Antioch moment of 2000. Will we remain a doctrinally loose and broad church or will the congregation vote to require her elders to embrace an Elder Affirmation of Faith with Reformed, biblical convictions? I thank God that you did.
- The Antioch moment of 2004. Will we build a huge new sanctuary downtown or will we plant churches and multiply campuses—that is, will we embrace the Treasuring Christ Together vision of multiple campuses, church planting, and caring for the poorest of the poor through the Global Diaconate?
And we did. So that today there are three campuses, one downtown, one eight miles north in Mounds View, and one 16 miles south in Burnsville. And we have planted ten churches—five of them in the Twin Cities, and one in Charlotte, Raleigh, Memphis, San Diego, and Little Rock.
Our Antioch Moment
And now we are at another Antioch moment. And this moment is defined by three very interrelated questions:
- How long can and should John Piper be the lead pastor for preaching and vision, and how should that succession come about?
- Should Treasuring Christ Together, with its vision of multiplying campuses, planting churches, and the Global Diaconate be replaced with a vision of three separate churches, revised but still one church on multiple campuses, or be given renewed energy and focus as it is?
- How shall we proceed with the fund raising—paying off our debt of about $7 million and building a South Campus?
The Elders believe that these three questions are intricately interwoven. The answer to each affects the answers to the others. This is our 2011 Antioch moment—the intersection of succession, structure, and funding.
The Original Antioch Moment
To set the stage for our own Antioch moment, and the way forward through it, let's turn to the text and the original Antioch moment in Acts 13:1–3.
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 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.
Seven Relevant Observations
I have seven observations, all of them relevant to our Antioch moment.
1. God was about to act to change the world forever.
Notice the words at the end of verse 2: The Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." The Holy Spirit had called them already. That did not happen in the prayer meeting. He had this planned a long time ago. And now it was time. And what he planned was one of the greatest missionary breakthroughs in the history of the world. Saul and Barnabas would launch the Christian movement into Asia Minor and then Paul would carry it on into Europe.
It is not an exaggeration to say that we are worshiping today in the Twin Cities because of this prayer meeting in Antioch where God spoke to the leaders of this local church. God had called Saul and Barnabas, and he intended them to be sent on a mission that would change the world.
You've heard the proverb: "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost. For want of a battle, the war was lost.
For want of a war, the kingdom was lost." This is why God governs the smallest details of life. There are no maverick molecules.
And the positive side is true as well. Because of a prayer meeting, the Spirit speaks. Because the Spirit speaks, apostles are sent. Because apostles are sent, churches are planted. Because churches are planted, missionaries are sent. Because missionaries are sent, the world is reached.
So as that church approached her Antioch moment, God was about to act to change the world.
2. God revealed his purpose to leaders.
Verse 1: "Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers." God doesn't always do it this way. But the Bible and history shows that he usually does. God has made all his people priests with direct access to him through Christ. Your elders are not your special mediators with God. Jesus is.
But the Bible does not call them leaders for nothing (Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24). They are servants of the people, as Jesus made very plain (Luke 22:26–27). But they serve by leading. And they are not to lead in their own wisdom, but by the wisdom and the word of God. So God regularly reveals his purpose for the church to leaders, especially leaders who humbly listen to their people as well as to the Lord.
3. God spoke to the leaders in Antioch when they were worshiping the Lord and fasting.
Verse 2: "While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said. . . "
They were not watching television. They were not studying the stock market. They were not sleeping. They were focusing together on Jesus as the leaders of the church. And their fasting means that they were doing it with intensity and great seriousness. This was not a casual prayer meeting. It was focused and earnest. My guess is that they were intentionally seeking God's guidance. What next, Jesus? What more do you have for us here at Antioch?
4. The leadership changes that God commanded were very difficult.
He said in verse 2: "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."
Of these five leaders, Barnabas and Saul were the most prominent. Acts 11 tells us that when the church began to grow in Antioch, the church in Jerusalem "sent Barnabas to Antioch" (Acts 11:22), who had proved himself to be such a gifted encourager (Acts 4:36). And it says that "when he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord" (Acts 23–24).
So Barnabas was overseeing tremendous growth in Antioch, so much so that he knew he needed help. And he decided that he wanted the very best teacher and discipler he knew. Acts 11:25–26: "So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people."
F. F. Bruce says in his commentary: "The two men who were to be released for what we should nowadays call missionary service overseas were the two most eminent and gifted leaders in the church" (Acts, NICNT, page 261). This was not easy for the church. But it was good. And it was incredibly fruitful.
5. The leadership changes were not mainly leavings or losings, but rather commissionings and redeployings.
Saul and Barnabas stayed connected to the church in Antioch. And they brought back reports of their mission. They were still part of the church. For example, after that first missionary journey, it says in Acts 14:26–27,
They sailed to [back] Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.
So in the mind of Paul and Barnabas and the church in Antioch, what had happened was not mainly a leaving or a loss. It was mainly a commissioning and a redeployment of two leaders who would remain in connection with the church.
Similarly, the way the elders and I see the issue of succession is not when does John leave, but when and how is he commissioned and redeployed as part of Bethlehem. I have said for many years that I would like to die at Bethlehem. Noël and I have no other home to go to. You are our family. Bethlehem College and Seminary is here. Desiring God is here. The homebase of any wider ministry is here. The question is not one of leaving; the question is one of deployment, timing, process, and adjustment of roles. That is one crucial part of Bethlehem's Antioch moment.
6. The transition at Antioch was not about survival but about expansion.
Acts 13:3–4: "Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus."
And the Gentile mission spread through Asia Minor, then to Greece, then to Italy. And on through the world till today there are 2.1 billion people who identify themselves under the banner of Christian. The mindset of God at this Antioch moment was not how can this church survive without Saul and Barnabas, but how can the world be reached with the message of the crucified and risen king of the universe? God gives himself to the church that gives itself to his mission.
I don't think it honors the Lord when a church drifts into a survival mode. Bethlehem's Antioch moment is not created by the question how will we survive? but how will we meet this moment—and every Antioch moment—with the mindset of expansion? There is absolutely no question that God commands that we continue to make disciples. You have been hearing this for weeks. We are to win people to faith in Christ and baptize them, plant churches that exalt Christ, and grow churches with people who observe everything Christ commanded (Matthew 28:19–20).
Bethlehem's Antioch moment is not about survival. It's about another 140 years of growth and faithfulness. Which brings us to the final observation.
7. God was faithful to the church of Antioch as they went through this transition.
They were there with support when Paul and Barnabas returned. The church of Antioch endured for centuries, and was the mother of great leaders like Ignatius and Chrysostom.
God's Faithfulness to Bethlehem
God has been faithful to Bethlehem. Amazingly faithful. We are not a perfect church. We have many weaknesses and flaws. We are sinful saints, not glorified saints. But God has preserved us for 140 years. In those years, there have been 14 senior pastors.
|John Ring||January, 1872 to June 1873||1 year|
|John Peterson||January 1874 to June 1874||1|
|A. R. Ogren||May 1875 to October 1878||3|
|John Anderson||December 1878 to June 1880||2|
|Frank Peterson||June 1881 to August 1890||9|
|Olaf Bodien||1893 to March 1912||19|
|Carl Vingren||September 1912 to 1918||6|
|Eric Carlson||October 1918 to 1927||9|
|Anton Sjolund||September 1928 to October 1948||20|
|Eric Lindholm||June 1949 to 1959||10|
|John Wilcox||1959 to January 1966||7|
|Robert Featherstone||1967 to August 1970||3|
|Bruce Fleming||1970 to 1980||10|
|John Piper||1980 to _______||31+|
Our Complicated Juncture
I mention them because it's the particular differences and the continuity that show the faithfulness of God. Every leadership transition is hard. Each one is an Antioch moment. And Bethlehem's Antioch moment this time is complicated by the fact that three questions are interwoven: the question of pastoral succession, the question of structural reevaluation, and the question of funding the establishment of our South Campus.
The elders do not yet have full, clear answers to these three questions.
On the succession question, my aim is to be here long enough to put the church in a healthy and strong position to advance, like Antioch did, when I am not the regular preacher. I love the Lord Jesus. I love this church. I love the ministry of the Word. And there is not place on the planet I would rather preach than here. May the Lord make it plain how long that should be.
On the multi-campus structural question, there is strong but not unanimous commitment to moving forward as one church on multiple campuses, while making every effort to adjust things and change things that will help us be more biblical and more fruitful in ministering to each other and to the world.
On the funding question, we know that we must—and we are eager—to trumpet the TCT funding plan called "Building One People." And we also know that in order for all of us to give as sacrificially for the vision of this church, we need a clearer picture than we have right now. So the sermon series I hope to do, and the call for commitment that we hope to make, is being postponed from May till this Fall.
But I thank the hundreds of you who continue to faithfully give to TCT and I ask that you press on in this giving, because the needs remain and Christ has a great future for us. We fully intend to move forward with the South Campus having its own land and building, and in paying off the indebtedness we have as a church.
The Elders' Six-Week Plan
What I want to do in closing is encourage you by what the elders have planned to do for the next six weeks. When God-centered leaders don't know what they should do, because it's not revealed in the Scriptures, they know what to do about not knowing what to do, because that is revealed in the Scriptures. Namely, pray.
So we are calling ourselves to extraordinary prayer—to pray together at the Downtown Campus from 6:30 to 7:30 AM every Thursday for six weeks starting this week. These will not be discussion meetings, and no business will be done. This is our Antioch gathering. We intend to put everything but what is taught in God's word on the table before the Lord, for him to assess. Our aim is to humble ourselves before him. Admit that we are children. And call out for him to speak. To do for us in our Antioch moment what he did in the original Antioch moment. Give us the kind of guidance that would be an explosive advance for this church—in succession, structural evaluation, and funding.
We eagerly invite you to pray with us—not to come to the meeting. That is just for the elders. But perhaps to get up early on Thursdays and join us before the throne of grace for the next six Thursdays. We plan to pray through the six chapters of Ephesians, one chapter each week. You could do the same. Or perhaps some of you might want to get together or use your small-group prayer time to join us.
Holding Fast to His Grace
We hold fast with you to God's precious, blood-bought promises, especially this one in 2 Corinthians 9:8: "God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work."