Lent at Antioch: The Spiritual Disciplines of the First Christians

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The first Christians did not have the word Lent, nor did they have a season of forty days before Easter. However, they did practice the spiritual disciplines of Lent: almsgiving, fasting, and prayer.

In the New Testament, we see all three practices together at the church at Antioch, where believers were first called Christians. Acts 11 and Acts 13 describes how these first Christians collected alms for the church in Jerusalem, fasted in conjunction with worship, and prayed before sending Saul (later Paul) and Barnabas on mission.

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Christians at Antioch

Acts 11 tells the origin story of the church in Antioch. It started after the martyrdom of Stephen and the scattering of the believers. As the believers left Jerusalem and visited various cities, they shared the gospel of Jesus, mostly with other Jews. But in Antioch a group of Greek speaking Jews spoke to Greek-speaking Gentiles, many of whom believed (Acts 11:19-21).

After learning of these conversions, the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to serve as a pastor to the new Gentile church in Antioch. Seeing the remarkable progress of the gospel, Barnabas also brought Saul to Antioch, and the church grew and took the new name of “Christian”:

For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26).

Why was the name Christian first used in Antioch? Probably because Jewish believers did not feel they needed a new name, but Gentile believers did. The Jewish believers were not changing religions; they were simply seeing their Jewish hope fulfilled. But the Gentiles were converting, and so they took the name “Christian.”

Almsgiving at Antioch

One of the first acts of these new Christians was almsgiving. When they heard that a famine was coming, they gave to relieve the need of the church in Jerusalem:

So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:29-30).

The church at Antioch likely learned this generosity from Barnabas, for Barnabas himself had participated in the remarkable generosity of the early Jerusalem Church:

Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:36-37).

Therefore, in Antioch’s almsgiving to Jerusalem, we observe a circle of generosity: Barnabas gave to the church in Jerusalem, which sent Barnabas to Antioch, which learned generosity from Barnabas, and then gave to support Jerusalem, sending Barnabas back with the alms again.

Reflecting on this economy of gift-giving, John Chrysostom points out that it resulted in a double blessing: “both the poor in Judaea enjoyed the benefit and those in Antioch who gave their money, and the latter more than the former” (Homilies on Acts, 25). That those who give receive a greater blessing reflects the teaching of Jesus himself, who said, “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Fasting at Antioch

Following almsgiving, we see fasting at Antioch upon the return of Barnabas and Saul. Acts 12 focuses on the church in Jerusalem, but its last verse notes the return of Barnabas and Saul after they had delivered the alms. We see the fasting in the beginning of Acts 13:

Now there were at 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” (Acts 13:1-2).

There are three details to note concerning this fasting. First, the church practices fasting in community, the whole church fasting together. Second, the church practices fasting alongside worship—the hunger accompanying fasting feasts on God’s worship: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Third, fasting opens the mind and heart to hear from God, as at Antioch, they received a revelation from the Holy Spirit.

If we wonder what prompted the church at Antioch to fast, the teaching and example of Saul may be the impetus. Acts 9 records that Saul fasted immediately after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus: “And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9). Saul’s fasting is the first record of fasting in the book of Acts, so it is not surprising that Antioch would follow Saul’s lead.

Prayer at Antioch

After the church at Antioch received the revelation from the Holy Spirit to set apart Barnabas and Saul for missionary work, it confirmed the revelation through continued fasting and prayer:

Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:3).

Of course, we assume that the church at Antioch has prayed constantly since its first conversion and that it surrounded its fasting with worship by prayer. But in the narrative of the Book of Acts, this is the first reference to prayer in the church at Antioch.

Therefore it is interesting to note three details concerning this prayer. First, this prayer accompanies fasting, as it had for Daniel and Nehemiah when they interceded with God for Jerusalem (see Daniel 9:3 and Nehemiah 1:4). There seems to be a strong sense of intercession when prayer accompanies fasting. Second, the prayer here immediately precedes the setting apart of Barnabas and Saul through the laying on of hands. And third, after this prayer, those set apart are sent off. In other words, this prayer precedes mission.

It is striking to see such prayer repeated by Barnabas and Saul during their first missionary journey. Acts 14 recounts how, once Barnabas and Saul had evangelized a city, they would use prayer and fasting to raise up and commit new leaders to the Lord:

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:23).

Antioch’s Encouragement for Lent

Observing these Lenten disciplines at Antioch should encourage us. After all, Barnabas does mean “son of encouragement”!

The example of Antioch encourages us to keep a holy Lent, and to expect God’s call to mission.

Keeping a Holy Lent

People sometimes criticize Lent for being a church tradition without an explicit Biblical basis. And it is true that the tradition of a forty-day fast before Easter did not develop until later, inspired by the analogy to Israel’s 40 years and Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness.

But the first Christians at Antioch already showed the substance of Lent. Their focused attention to almsgiving, fasting, and prayer should encourage all Christians to practice these spiritual disciplines. Certainly, we can profitably practice these disciplines at any time. Precisely for this reason, we should have a season in which they are given focused attention.

Thus the first Christians at Antioch inspire us to keep a holy Lent.

Joining God’s Mission

A second encouragement from the first Christians at Antioch is to expect that God will work powerfully through the Lenten disciplines.

As the church at Antioch practiced almsgiving, fasting, and prayer, it became aware of God’s global mission and was called to join the work. Almsgiving drew the church to the needs of its neighbors. Fasting opened their minds and hearts to hear the call of the Holy Spirit. Prayer confirmed and commissioned participation in ministry and mission.

What remarkable opportunity might God reveal to us when we practice the spiritual disciplines this Lent?


Want to learn more about Lent? Check out Anglican Compass’s new book, The Liturgical Home: Lent, written by Ashley Tumlin Wallace. The paperback and Kindle editions are available now, exclusively on Amazon.


Image: Stained glass at All Saints’ Anglican Church, Rome, Italy, by workroom Clayton and Hall (19. cent.) Photo by sedmak, courtesy of iStock.

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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