The God of Strangers
I never really paid much attention to the Book of Acts until now. I’ve been reading through it in my personal devotions lately, and I’ve begun to see just how beautiful a picture of unity of purpose and faith it is.
There’s one thing about it that I really think is a beautiful continuum that flows out of the life of Jesus.
In an easy-to-miss passage in Acts 13, a brief description of the major ministers in the church of Antioch is given:
“In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch), and Saul.”
As if the verse itself isn’t easy enough to miss, it’s also easy to miss its context. Let’s take a look at the people involved.
Barnabas: The first mention of this man is in Acts 4:26, where he is described as “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus,” who gave a rather large donation to the church after selling some land he owned. His identification marks him as a true Jew, from the tribe of Levi, who had since emigrated to Cyprus. “Barnabas” is an epithet that means “Son of Encouragement,” as this man had a gift of exhorting his fellow believers.
Simeon, called Niger: Back when the world was not truly cosmopolitan and it was easy to identify a man’s geographic origins by his appearance, being called “black” was not meant to be an offensive racial slur. This man’s Jewish name and his epithet seem to hint at an African convert to Judaism.
Lucius of Cyrene: Cyrene, which is in present-day Libya, was a Greek colony during the historical period which Acts describes. Given that he has a a Latin name, it might hint that this man is not actually a Jew, but a Greek.
Manaen (Who had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch): The term “who had been brought up with” is a single word in Greek (suntrophos) which means “fellow nursling.” This implies that this man had the same nursemaid as the king of Judea. The same word can also mean “comrade,” which still implies close ties. This man was not a simple commoner. He was an aristocrat.
Saul: Saul, who became known as Paul, is known as one of the most radical converts in the early church. He was a persecutor turned missionary. However, don’t forget why he was a persecutor: He was a Pharisee. Being a Pharisee required a lofty education and strict religious training. Saul also lists both of these under his “qualifications” later on. (Philippians 3:4-6). Thus, he was the equivalent of a Th.D. during his time.
Taking a look at these five men, we can come up with a simple observation: There is no reason these men should be associating with each other. Jews would shun a Gentile like Lucius. Indigenous Hebrews, while bound to social rules of hospitality, would not necessarily work closely with an African. An upright man like Saul might see something reprehensible about aristocrats like Manaen. Manaen might think it below him to associate with a commoner like Barnabas. They might as well be strangers—rather, they might as well be strangers, if not for the love of Christ.
In a world that so savagely attacks Christianity these days, in the face of so-called freethinkers who proclaim the Gospel as intolerant, we have much to learn from the simple fellowship of five men of diverse and sundry origins. They were brought together by a common faith, a common purpose, and a common love. Christ is not one who demands uniformity, but unity. He is a God who reaches out to strangers—like ourselves—and brings us together.