I recently had the opportunity to visit the oldest church building in the world. This wasn’t the first place the church existed, but it was the first known location that was specifically created for the church to gather and meet. Prior to this everywhere the church existed they met in people’s homes or in public gathering places like the Temple.
Honestly, what I saw bore little resemblance to that original building the early Christians would have used. More than nine hundred years ago, and more than a millennium after it was first built, Europeans came to the area and built a newer church on top of the old. While there are still signs of that original church, far more of what we see today is construction and mythology that dates back to the short-lived kingdom of Antioch. As beautiful as this piece of history is, I really wanted to know and see what the church would have been like for those original believers. What were they like? Who were these first followers of Jesus that worshiped in in this first church building in the world and also were the first believers in the world to be given the name “Christian”?
The eleventh chapter of Acts gives us a short description of who these first Christians in Antioch were. We read, “Meanwhile, the believers who had been scattered during the persecution after Stephen’s death traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch of Syria. They preached the word of God, but only to Jews.However, some of the believers who went to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene began preaching to the Gentiles about the Lord Jesus. The power of the Lord was with them, and a large number of these Gentiles believed and turned to the Lord.
The first thing that we see from these Christians is that they were afraid. They ran. Stephen was the first martyr of the Church and his death raised the bloodlust of the Jews. Good Jewish men like Saul began to seek out, imprison, and kill other Christians wherever they could be found and so a good number of them decided they would rather go to places these zealous Jews would not be able to find them.
That is probably why this first church building became the first church building. In this area, there are two large hills and a valley. At the base of one of these hills down by the river is where the settlement of Antioch would have been. It is where the city of Antioch still resides today. On that hill is the Roman fortress large enough to hold those citizens if the city ever did come under attack. The other, small hill is a little bit further away. It is a little bit accessible. That hill is today called Mount Staurin, the hill of the cross.
Inside their little church, they built an escape route that would have taken them through the mountain so they could escape to the other side, far away from civilization. Although they had stopped running and started spreading the gospel, they were still ready to run again if the need presented itself. I do not know if that tunnel ever did get put to the use they created it for, but the very fact it was built tells us that these early Christians still lived under a very real threat and that this was one fear they never did conquer.
What makes me afraid today? I remember watching a neighbor’s wedding celebration from my window a building over and two floors up when the thought came to me, “How big would the bomb blast need to be for it to reach me here?” You might think such a thought strange but you have to realize, less than two months earlier another such wedding celebration in my city did fall victim to an ISIS terrorist.
Pretty much every time I am sharing my faith in a public place I am very aware of everyone who is around me. I am not just noticing the person I might be talking to but also anyone else who might possibly be in earshot. I am very aware that if I push it a little too hard or if the wrong person happens to overhear the wrong thing, I could be jailed or deported. I know people who have experienced both.
That same fear shows up in all of us in different ways. If word gets around at work that I have been sharing my faith, will I lose the chance for that promotion? What will my neighbor think of me if I take this opportunity to steer our conversation towards Jesus? I’ve already witnessed to my family and they don’t seem to want to listen. If I keep bringing it up, will I push them away rather than drawing them closer to Jesus?
How many times have thoughts like this kept us from speaking out when the Spirit is leading? Even if we do speak, how many times have we later felt guilty for even thinking such things? Where is my faith? God, why am I so afraid? Why do I let peer pressure and worry about what others might say or think always dominate my thoughts? How often are we mentally and emotionally beating ourselves up for having such real and normal fears? It is encouraging to know that even these early Christians also had a healthy dose of fear.
Not only were these Christians afraid, they were anonymous. I’m not talking about a bunch of wannabe hackers who wear Guy Fawkes masks to make youtube videos bashing the evil corporate system. These men were really, truly anonymous. God knows their names but we don’t.
The church we see today is called Saint Peter’s Church, Senpiyer Kilisesi. The legend that dates back to Crusader times and probably even further back was that Saint Peter was the first leader of this church. As lovely as that is and as nice as it is to have his name stuck on this ancient building, it doesn’t line up with what we know of history. The Bible places the origins of this church to some men who came to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene. That’s it. Some men. Maybe Luke knew their names and didn’t see the need to mention them at this point in the narrative. More likely, he didn’t even know himself. These guys get no credit. They get no recognition. The founders of the church in Antioch, the builders of the first building created exclusively for use as a meeting place for believers, don’t even get a name.
Would I be content with that? Am I more concerned with what gets done than with who gets credit? How desperate am I, are we, for worldly recognition of our gifts and calling? I had someone recently ask me, “Have you ever thought about becoming a real pastor?” If my inside emotions were to be seen instead of my outside exterior, they would have noticed steam coming out my ears. A real pastor. Really? I ought-ta smack you one. Instead, I just smiled and answered the question in a way that deflected and educated rather than saying what I really thought. If I answered every question that raised my hackles like that the way I really wanted to, I probably would not have very many friends.
It seems that I still have a lot of pride. I still have a much greater need for recognition and respect than I deserve. I might sing “To God be the glory” but I am far from meaning it. What about you? What gets your hackles raised? Have you ever watch someone else get the credit for your hard work? How did you react? Do you have that same seemingly uncontrollable need to make sure that your name is attached to everything good you do?
The name that was attached to those early followers was “Christlike”. In Acts 11:20 the founders of this early church were simply called “some believers”. However, six verses further down those believers are finally given a name. We read, “It was in Antioch that the believers were first names Christians.” I pray that we will be given the grace and humility so that one day the same thing could be said about us. Who did that? Oh, it was one of those Jesus people. Who is she? Oh, you know, she’s one of those followers of Christ. That is the only name we ever truly need.
These early Christians were afraid, they were anonymous, and they were also anointed. Luke writes: “The power of the Lord was with them, and a large number of these Gentiles believed and turned to the Lord.” My city needs someone who is operating under the power of the Lord. Your city needs someone who is living in the anointing of the Most High. There is a world desperate and dying out there that cannot get by on people who just follow scripts and on churches that only use methodologies.
A good sermon will not lead people to Christ. A convincing argument will not win the lost. It isn’t a ritual or a religion that this world needs. It isn’t even greater authenticity or more transparency. All of these things are good. They all have their place, but without the anointing they are nothing. Without his power, we are doomed to mediocrity or at most only the shallow, surface appearance of success.
Before we can have God’s anointing on our lives, we first need to have God living in our lives. I know some of you who are listening to me at this would be like, “well, yeah, duh.” For others, the very idea of needing God to live in us that we might best live for Him is a completely new and foreign concept. How does that work? How can it happen? The answer to that goes back to the fear and pride that I’ve already talked about. We first need to swallow our pride and admit that we cannot live a truly good life through our own abilities. We fail. We mess up. We sin. Over and over again we keep falling into the same traps and pitfalls and no amount of trying harder or living smarter will ever change anything.
The second thing we need to do is truly believe that even though we can’t, God can. If we step aside and let God sit in the driver’s seat He will get us where we need to go. It takes courage to not try and take over again every time the road starts to get a little bumpy. It takes courage to publicly admit to others that we have given Him control in our lives. For some, that decision could mean being cut off from family, losing jobs, and even death. For others, it might mean little more than being looked down on or mocked by their friends. This worry is no less legitimate, but no matter what the fear might be we need to push past it to say, “Jesus, I make you Lord of my life.”
Once we have done this, and as we continually surrender daily to Him, we cannot help but have His anointing. When God gets the glory in our hearts, He will show His glory through our lives.
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