When, on 5th March, 1936, the Vickers test pilot Joseph Summers returned from giving the prototype Supermarine Spitfire its initial flight he is reported to have said that it "handled beautifully", and told the aeroplane's engineers, "Don't touch a thing" – by which he meant that the new fighter was perfect. And history proved him right. In the same way, there can be no improvement on God's pattern for the local church. It is inspired and it works. That pattern is spelled out in the Acts. The first three verses of chapter 13 establish a basic model for a New Testament assembly by describing in brief the character of the church in Antioch:
Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
What do we learn about the Antioch assembly? It was a local company, for believers should be in fellowship with saints gathering in their district. These Christians were not commuting to another city, travelling past one company of saints in order to privilege another. In Genesis 26.25 Isaac first built his altar, then pitched his tent in exactly the same place, suggesting the principle that we should set up our residence close to our place of spiritual exercise. Second, it was autonomous, not affiliated to a central authority at Jerusalem, but responsible directly to the ascended Lord Himself. Our headquarters are where our Head is - in heaven. Third, because it was blessed with a plurality of recognised teaching brethren who could minister the Word, it was self-supporting in spiritual gift. The Biblical ideal is that every company of believers should include men who can preach the gospel, teach the Scriptures, and shepherd the saints. How much we should be praying that God would raise up suitable men to feed His people. Further, as the names of the five teachers and prophets demonstrate, the Antioch church was a cosmopolitan company, embracing a range of believers from varied backgrounds. We can detect national (Lucius came from North Africa, Barnabas from Cyprus), ethnic (Simeon's name is Jewish but his nickname "Niger" suggests he was a black man), social (Manaen had been a companion of Herod the tetrarch, the man who murdered John Baptist, and presumably had enjoyed an advantaged upbringing), and intellectual differences (Saul was undoubtedly one of the sharpest minds of his age). God's grace saves sinners of every kind. Yet all these men served together in harmony, without envy, without dispute, without competition. It was an active church, for they "ministered", that is, they spent their time serving their fellow-believers. Neither the legitimate claims of the workplace nor the lure of pleasure could quench their enthusiasm to help the saints. It was, however, primarily a Christ-centred church, for the first object of their service was the Lord Himself - an assembly is a place where Christ is honoured in every spiritual exercise. To gather to His name means that we acknowledge His complete pre-eminence.
We also read that they fasted. Now, although I can see in Scripture no place for ceremonial fasting today, this was plainly a devoted church where the things of God took such priority that all else (even eating) was secondary. It was also a sensitive company, alert to the voice of the Spirit of God. With the completed canon of Scripture the Holy Spirit no longer speaks to men in this direct manner, yet every believer is responsible to attend to the written Word, which is still living and powerful. This is how the Lord feeds our souls and guides our steps.
Of the five prophets and teachers in Antioch, two were called out by God for special service in a wider sphere. But He left three to preserve the important principle of plurality in ministry and leadership within the local church. No one man must ever take precedence in God's assembly. Interestingly, Scripture does not appear to concern itself with what we might consider the important matter of the financial support of Saul and Barnabas. We know from other parts of the New Testament that Paul's general custom was to support himself and not be dependent upon the saints, so it may be that this was his practice from the beginning. Of course, the actual calling to particular spheres of ministry is uniquely God's business, for He alone chooses whom He uses. Nevertheless, we might note that on this occasion He selected men who were already active in their own assembly, for those who are lazy at home are liable to be lazy anywhere. After all, what Barnabas and Saul were called to was "work" rather than reward, prominence, or power, and the way they were called was in the course of their regular spiritual service ("they ministered to the Lord, and fasted"). We should never despise the ordinary, for it is in our normal daily reading of the Word and in the regular meetings of the assembly that God speaks to our souls.
The Antioch believers gladly approved the divine choice. The gospel fervour of Barnabas and Saul clearly came as no surprise to them, nor was it an independent exercise but one undertaken in full fellowship with the rest of the company, which whole-heartedly identified itself with the workers. True service for God will never detach itself from the local assembly because the formation and building up of New Testament churches is a primary aim of evangelism.
Thereafter Luke's narrative traces the travels of Barnabas and Saul through the Mediterranean world, as they went about founding local churches which would not be permanently dependent for their spiritual welfare upon them or upon any future generation of missionaries. Rather, like the assembly at Antioch, they would be equipped by God with able local men who could instruct them in godliness. This is made plain towards the end of that first preaching tour, when the apostles revisited those newly established companies of believers. Why did they do this? As well as providing further spiritual nourishment, the apostles ordained overseers (Acts 14.23), thus authoritatively instituting a leadership structure for the new Christians. Paul apparently believed that recently formed companies of saints ought to be able to function for God without the aid of visiting preachers. The word "ordain" simply translates cheirotoneo, which "comes from cheir, "hand", and teino, "stretch out". So it regularly means "to vote by stretching out the hand"…But here it was evidently a direct appointment by Paul and Barnabas (Ralph Earle). The fact that these elders were only chosen on the return trip indicates that Paul was not using some mysterious apostolic gift but simply identifying visible spiritual growth. Those showing the qualifications of spiritual leadership as listed in 1 Timothy 3.1-7 were therefore pointed out to the assembly as their shepherds. Three key New Testament words describe such assembly leaders (1 Pet 5.1-2): they are elders (signifying spiritual maturity), bishops or overseers (highlighting their spiritual ministry of watching benevolently over the saints), and shepherds (underlining their spiritual model of tenderness and trustworthiness). Unlike the practice of much of modern Christendom, New Testament assemblies had a plurality of recognised elders in each church (Phil 1.1; Acts 20.28), thereby preserving the unique centrality of the person of Christ.
The new believers' focus of attention was not the preachers (who were in any case moving on), not some para-church organisation (for there was none), not a headquarters at Jerusalem (for each assembly was independent), not even the newly recognised elders, but "the Lord, on whom they believed" (Acts 14.23). Men will let us down, but Christ never fails. Although God's pattern for gathering is increasingly unfashionable, our duty is to maintain it through thick and thin, faithfully serving the local assembly in which He has placed us.
To be continued.