From Old Traditions to New Vision
By Ed Silvoso
In the quest to rediscover the real Ekklesia, tradition can be the ballast that gives us stability as we sail into uncharted waters, or the anchor that immobilizes us, as it did at first for the Early Church.
Jesus instructed His apostles to tarry in Jerusalem until they had been clothed with power to see God’s Kingdom established in that city first, and from there to take it progressively to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). In essence, Jesus singled out Jerusalem for the privilege of being the vortex from where Christianity would expand in concentric circles until the uttermost parts of the Earth had been reached.
But that is not the way things turned out, and asking the question why will lead to indispensable lessons for us today, and in our quest to rediscover the real Ekklesia, we will find that tradition can either be the ballast that gives us stability, or the anchor that keeps us immobilized, tying us to the past.
A little backdrop for the big question
The beginning was quite “non-traditional.” the Apostles did a great job as far as filling Jerusalem with the gospel because “multitudes of men and women were constantly added to their number [in Jerusalem]…” (Acts 5:14ff). Following Stephen’s martyrdom, a persecution arose that drove many of the local believers out to far away regions (Acts 8:1-2).
Saul (later to be known as Paul) subsequently “was ravaging the Church (Ekklesia)” (Acts 8:1,4) equipped with letters from the High Priest (Acts 9:2), until he was ambushed by the Lord on the road to Damascus. Paul then became an eloquent apologist for The Way, first in the synagogues in Damascus, and later on in Jerusalem when we read that “the churches (Ekklesias) enjoyed peace in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria (see Acts 9:31), a statement that reveals that The Apostles had reached the third concentric circle from where, according to Jesus’ instructions in Acts 1:8, they were to proceed to the nations of the world.
To prepare him for the next leap toward the ends of the earth, God “ambushed” Peter and sent him to minister away from Jerusalem to people with Hellenized names such as Aeneas in Lydda (Acts 9:32-34), and Dorcas in Joppa, resulting in a significant number of salvations, and put him under the roof of a full blooded Gentile Centurion in the Roman Army who had gathered his relatives and close friends to listen to what Peter had to say. They also believed and were baptized in the Holy Spirit (see Acts 10).
This seems to have opened the door for a greater expansion because next we read that, “…those who were scattered because of the persecution…came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus…and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21).
Substitution: Antioch for Jerusalem
Antioch was a merchant city on the crossroads of trade routes travelled by pagans alighting from as far away as Asia. Jerusalem eventually became known as a center of passive/aggressive resistance to the cross-cultural expansion that the Ekklesia in Antioch gave birth to. From Acts 11 onward we see a shift from Jerusalem as the vortex for expansion to Antioch.
The danger of unwise coexistence
The intriguing question is, Why?
In Acts 8:1, we find a perplexing statement that in my opinion holds the key to why this happened: “and on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem and they were all scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the Apostles.”
Why were the apostles, the leaders of the Ekklesia in Jerusalem, able to stay while their followers had to flee? I wish to submit a hypothesis: the apostles were able to stay because they found a way to justify coexistence between the old and the new covenants, and a series of compromising moves made by the Ekklesia in Jerusalem kept it from the fullness of the mission spelled out by Jesus.
The fact that the vortex of Christianity is not in Jerusalem today needs to be explained.
I believe Paul put his finger on these accommodations when he warned the Galatians about having been bewitched (Gal. 3:1ff). In this passage, Paul describes the “Law as [nothing more than] a tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:24-19). A key point not to be missed here is that Paul identifies Abraham, who preceded Moses and the Law, as the root for our salvation. Obviously, there was never room in God’s plans for the old and new covenants to coexist, but this seems to be what the Apostles did (intentionally or not) that got them a pass to stay while their followers had to run for their lives.
Jesus’ cosmopolitan worldview vs. the disciples’ ethnocentricity
Jesus’ childhood experiences gave Him a cosmopolitan worldview much wider than the average Jew, and certainly broader than the rulers and elders of Israel: He was conceived in the northern part of the country (Galilee), born in the south (Bethlehem), and spent His childhood in Egypt after being blessed (and funded) by wise Magi who came from the East (most likely Babylon). Subsequently, He picked His apostles from outside of Jerusalem, and when He launched His ministry He infuriated the ethnocentric Jewish elders in his hometown of Nazareth by making positive references in the synagogue to two Old Testament gentiles, a Syrian general and a Canaanite widow (Lk. 4:25-27).
I suggest that it was Jesus’ awareness of this ethnocentrism that led Him to correct His apostles when they misinterpreted the intended purpose for the Holy Spirit power (see Acts 1:5-8). His corrective instructions to them were very specific: begin in Jerusalem but keep moving centrifugally until they reached the ends of the earth.
This ethnocentrism was so ingrained in the Apostles that at Cornelius’ house Peter bluntly stated how unacceptable it was for him to be under a Gentile roof. Nevertheless, God surprised everybody (Peter more than anyone) by pouring out His Spirit upon those “undesirable” Gentiles. By the time Peter returned to Jerusalem, the leaders were waiting with disapproval, until they heard that the same Holy Spirit they experienced on Pentecost had been poured out upon these Gentiles.
Even this extraordinary and unexpected event did not move the apostles to actively go beyond Judea as Jesus instructed them.
But even this extraordinary event did not cause the apostles to go beyond Samaria as Jesus instructed them. Instead, it was those who had been scattered by the persecution that took the gospel to the Gentiles (see Acts 10:19-21).
Barnabas, the right choice
When news reached Jerusalem that large numbers of non-Jews had believed in Antioch, Barnabas was sent by the apostles to check them out (Acts 11:22). This was most providential because Barnabas was a Levite of Cyprian birth who had proven his commitment to the Ekklesia in Jerusalem. His nickname—“son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36)—points to a merciful predisposition. Upon arriving in Antioch, Barnabas saw the grace of God and, true to his gifting, he encouraged this crop of unusual believers to remain in the Lord, which resulted in an even larger number of converts joining their ranks.
Barnabas then found himself facing the same challenge that Peter did upon returning from Cornelius’ house, except that he did not possess the clout Peter had, nor was he able to report a spontaneous outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon these uncircumcised Gentiles who most likely ate food forbidden by the Law, did not keep the Sabbath, nor complied with the ceremonial washings but still confessed Jesus as their Savior.
A most strategic detour
What did Barnabas do? Instead of returning to Jerusalem where he did not have the weight or stature required to convince those who had commissioned his inspection trip, he went looking for Paul (Acts 11: 25).
Why did Barnabas go looking specifically for Paul? This is my hypothesis: Barnabas was aware that Paul had been “politely” encouraged by the brethren in Jerusalem to take a break after he rattled the cage there, so to speak, when he confronted Jewish elders at the time when “a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Granted, that move was also meant to protect him from a plot to kill him (Acts 9:29-30), but keep in mind that the apostles were bound in a mindset of time and space (“Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” Acts 1:6), and were consciously, or even more likely, unconsciously gravitating toward peaceful co-existence possibly until Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple and its priestly order came to pass.
The Temple’s long shadow
However, in the early days of the Ekklesia in Jerusalem, the Temple and the priestly order were still in full operation. This presented the Apostles with a major challenge by pitting Jewish-ness rooted in the old covenant against the new covenant, the devastating consequences of which the Epistle to the Hebrews issues a compelling warning about (Heb. 8:13; 9:15).
Tradition was bound to blind those that were not bicultural and had not had the opportunity to see firsthand the saving grace of God.
It is not hard to imagine the inexperienced elders in the recently-established Ekklesia in Jerusalem being intimidated by the Temple with its impressive rituals and its army of priests in a nation that made of that the very heartbeat of its existence. But now, large numbers of priests were becoming obedient to the faith, increasing the pressure toward a compromise.
The Ekklesia had no buildings, no professional clergy, no religious rituals, and was adamantly opposed by the High Priest and his cohorts. Add to this now the new complication posed by a large number of converted priests who still depended on their service at the Temple for daily substance. How were they to support themselves and their households if they left their priestly ministry, which according to Jesus was not part of the New Covenant?
Barnabas also found himself in another fluid situation in Antioch. Large numbers of Gentiles were getting saved without observing any of those rituals, and this must have given him pause about returning to Jerusalem with a positive report because he knew © 2016 by Ed Silvoso www.transformourworld.org
that it was going to be controversial at least. He was torn by two colliding perceptions of reality: the believers in Antioch were true Christians, but the Ekklesia in Jerusalem (also made up of true believers) expected Gentile converts to adopt the Jewish practices. Since the Gentiles who constituted the Ekklesia in Antioch could not be moved to Jerusalem, and the Temple did not have an annex in Antioch to replicate the evolving situation there, Barnabas faced a monumental challenge.
Tradition was bound to blind those that were not bicultural like he was and who had not had the opportunity to see firsthand the saving grace of God displayed in Antioch. Furthermore, “the problem” became bigger through additional growth because he had exhorted the original group to remain true to the Lord and (this resulted in) considerable new numbers brought to the Lord! (seeActs 11:22-24)
Looking for a Rabbi to teach Gentiles
Barnabas left for Tarsus to search for Saul—as Paul was still called then (Acts 11:25). Why? Because even though Saul had the credentials of a Rabbi, he had not been afraid to boldly confront the Jewish religious establishment on the advent of a new covenant, first in Damascus, and shortly afterward in Jerusalem (Acts 9:20-29), something he did again later on when he confronted misguided apostles like Peter inside the movement (Gal. 2:11).
Once he found Paul, there is no record that Barnabas went back to Jerusalem, but instead both came to Antioch where they spent one year teaching. The result was amazing: their numbers grew and the Disciples were first called Christians there.
How to break the news to the Apostles in Jerusalem?
Tangible love paves the way
Prophets came from Jerusalem and one of them (Agabus) prophesied that “a great famine was about to come all over the world” (Acts 11:28). The believers in Antioch took it upon themselves “to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea,” by the hands of Barnabas and Saul (Paul) (Acts 11:29). This extraordinary act of kindness God ultimately used to set in motion the process for Gentile Christians to be recognized on a par with Jewish believers.
Breaking out of the mold of tradition is not easy because tradition is not evil in and of itself.
Their visit coincided with a new attack on the Ekklesia in Jerusalem, this time instigated by King Herod who had killed James and imprisoned Peter. But God judged Herod by an angel striking him down. The dramatic display of God’s righteous standards injected such awe in the people that, “The word of the Lord continued to grow and be multiplied,” setting the stage for Barnabas and Saul to return to Antioch with a great sense of satisfaction (Acts 12:24-25). © 2016 by Ed Silvoso www.transformourworld.org
It is no coincidence that shortly afterward the Lord commanded the elders of the Ekklesia in Antioch to release Barnabas and Saul to embrace the next mission (Acts 13:3) which basically would spread and replicate the Antioch “problem” in a region so vast that it went from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Rom. 15:19).
Tradition: ballast or an anchor
Breaking out of the mold of tradition is not easy because tradition is not evil in and of itself. It is the sum of our cultural and genetic heritage, both personal and collective. Our worldview is determined by it. Who we are and how we go about living out that identity is shaped by tradition.
In the case of Israel, a nation for whom the headwater of tradition consisted of God’s law and oracles, tradition was absolutely sacred and worthy of appreciation and respect. But this was also a nation called by God to be a light to other nations and not just unto itself (Gen. 18:18). Accordingly, Jesus’ command was to disciple all nations, something that required a bridge out of the mono-cultural past into a multicultural mosaic so vast as to include all cultures. And this is where tradition tends to become a major obstacle. How Barnabas and Saul went about their apostolic/missionary work shows how potent the inertia of tradition can be to the point of obscuring precise divine instructions, as shown by the first move they made after leaving Antioch.
Paul’s learning curve (Acts 13-20)
We read that after they had been prayed for by the elders in Antioch, “…they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews” (Acts 13:4). It is worth noting that the Ekklesia in Antioch was not associated to a Synagogue, making more perplexing Paul and Barnabas’ choice of going to Synagogues.
An unexpected tipping point
For the next sixteen years, Paul remained determined to preach first in the Synagogues by going where God-fearing people gathered to pray on the Sabbath (Acts 16:12-13). But as long as Paul used this approach, he did not see a city (much less a region) transformed—that is, until something dramatic happened beyond the four walls of the Synagogue!
That move to the marketplace redirected the church—the Ekklesia—to its original purpose.
The point of entry that led to this major breakthrough is found in Acts chapter 18. Paul had arrived in Corinth following a rather disappointing evangelistic foray into Athens. Once in Corinth, Paul met Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2-3) with whom he entered into a tent-making business partnership. It is here where he first exited the Synagogue and moved “next door to the house of Titius Justus” where we assume their tent-making operation was headquartered. © 2016 by Ed Silvoso www.transformourworld.org
The unfriendly manner in which his departure took place (1 Cor. 18:8) forced a major change in strategy for Paul. Until then, the Synagogue (with its traditional respect for God, for the Scriptures, and for living righteously) had been a relatively “safe” base of operations, but the shift to set up a business venture in the marketplace put them in touch with heathens every day of the week. But it was precisely in that move that the Lord was redirecting His church—the Ekklesia—to its original purpose.
The preaching continuum highlighted here was plausible because house in the Bible encompassed not only the family, but also the workplace.
So Paul, Aquila and Priscilla turned their occupation into a pulpit in the marketplace, enabling the three of them to minister to a vastly greater audience, which in turn produced results far beyond what was ever expected. What a radical break from tradition!
A most catalytic conversion: Crispus
The detonator was the conversion of Crispus and his household, creating something on the order of an evangelistic tsunami so powerful that many Corinthians “were believing and were being baptized” (Acts 19:8).
So phenomenal was the growth that God needed to encourage Paul “in the night by a vision” (Acts 18:9) to convey a reassuring directive: do not be afraid but go on proclaiming for He, the Lord, was with him right there, in the marketplace.
Assurance was needed because it was not happening in the religious setting that Paul was traditionally used to, but rather in an absolutely secular place.
Why? Because the number of conversions was so huge, but even more because it was not happening in the religious setting that Paul was traditionally used to, but rather in an absolutely secular place, the marketplace!
Who was this Crispus that his conversion and that of his household triggered this kind of citywide response to the Gospel?
Crispus was catalytic because he was prominent in the marketplace. Clearly, he was a man of influence, and so was his business (household) since awareness of their newfound faith is identified as the catalyst for it.
Let us put this in a modern day context. If you, the reader, were to turn your sphere of influence into a Kingdom center like Paul and his associates did, and soon afterward a very prominent leader and his group of Fortune 500 level companies (household) were to get saved and massive correction of old wrongs were to follow, setting in motion the salvation of thousands of un-churched folks that you proceed to baptize right away (as Paul did) in a secular setting, you would also need divine reassurance that those conversions are legit. © 2016 by Ed Silvoso www.transformourworld.org
We read that, “[Paul] settled there [in Corinth] a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:11). Because he was no longer welcome in the Synagogue, which would have been the traditional religious environment for teaching (similar to our modern day church gatherings), he had to do it in the marketplace and the spiritual harvest was extraordinary.
The apostle and his business partners
Paul then took his business partners, Aquila and Priscilla, as ministry associates to establish the Ekklesia in Ephesus (Acts 18:18,19). Strangely, the pull of tradition was still present in that again he went first to the Synagogue, but soon the obstinance of the religious community sent him back to the marketplace as his base of operations in the marketplace (Acts 19:8-10)—not necessarily the way we do most church planting today—but in just two years, Paul had all but worked himself out of a job.
There is something powerful here that should not be missed. Paul, by focusing on the marketplace, became surprisingly catalytic. From that point on, the gospel went “viral and sticky” and Paul, the late comer to the apostleship who did his ministry internship in a pagan merchant city (Antioch), was able to lay the foundation for a movement that quickly engulfed a vast region and set his eyes on a nation in what he most likely considered to be the end of the earth, Spain (Rom. 15:15-ff).
But this breakthrough did not occur until Paul turned the tradition rooted in the Temple and in the synagogues into a launching pad instead of the landing strip, and converted an anchor of tradition into a propeller for expansion, something new and far more effective.
Allow me to make a critical observation here. Paul could not have reached all of Asia without the Synagogues since they were the depositories of God’s oracles and the meeting place for those to whom the promises about a Savior were first entrusted. Furthermore, it was precisely in that circle, so rich in tradition, where he had received his training and met many of his future associates.
It is equally evident that Paul could have never reached all of Asia through the Synagogues alone. He tried at first, but did not get very far in spite of the fact that he was the best informed, most anointed, and eloquent preacher and writer of his time.
Tension between pulpit and marketplace
This is also true today: no mega church or federation of mega churches, no matter how large and how anointed their pastors are, has discipled a nation. Whether in Asia, Africa or Latin America, continents that are home to congregations with hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions of members, led by some of the most eloquent preachers, transformation still has yet to hit a nation.
But equally true is the fact that those congregations, mega or otherwise, hold the key for which we need to find the right keyhole. And this is what I am seeking to show by providing this phenomenological survey of the Scriptures.
This is the threshold that the fast expanding transformation movement is approaching. Existing churches will come to a fork in the road. They will either become “Christian synagogues,” not unlike the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, who come together acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah, receiving the Holy Spirit, and nurturing themselves with the “teaching of the Apostles,” but they will not break out of their traditions, at least not yet, to focus outside the four walls. Or, they will retool to intentionally redirect all that they do inside the “synagogue” to become a constant 24/7 influence over entire cities, regions and nations.
In Paul’s experience, we see how the Lord freed him from the constraints of his Synagogue-centered tradition and put him in touch with the city through a business partnership. It was so Kingdom in nature and so filled with transformational anointing that Paul’s “handkerchiefs or aprons,” saturated with sweat from making tents, became extraordinary ministry vehicles, and when they “…were carried from his body to the sick, the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out” (Acts 19:12).
This radical departure from his traditional training as a Rabbi caused him to “lift up his eyes and see fields white unto harvest” where tradition could have never led him.
This is a common theme throughout all of the prototypes we examine in my book, Ekklesia: Rediscovering God’s Instrument for Global Transformation.
Like in Paul’s case, the traditional ministry training each of these leaders received was foundational for their subsequent success in the marketplace, but not until they saw it for what it was meant to be: a foundation. A foundation, as important as it is, remains ineffective until walls are erected on it.
This is why tradition must become a propeller, and not an anchor. New paradigms must serve as bridges to take us from the old to the new because to see what we have never seen, we must do what we have not done yet.
Generally speaking, today pastors are not taught how to start businesses, or disciple the police, or do social entrepreneurship. The marketplace is not presented to them as important. But that is the place where they are called to minister as elders in the Ekklesia because that is where God’s End Time outpouring will take place. His Spirit will be poured upon all flesh, of which what happened in Corinth and Ephesus are embryonic forerunners.
Paul drew from the divine deposits in his cultural and religious heritage to establish a baseline from where to take the Gospel to cultures shaped by other religions and he succeeded! And this is essential in this journey to rediscover the Ekklesia as Jesus designed it to be. And when we do, we will find immense and unexpected favor with unsaved leaders.
Yes, the day is coming when we will see ministry happening 24/7 in the marketplace and cities “filled with the doctrine of the Apostles” by an Ekklesia in which everybody is a minister and labor is worship.
© 2016 by Ed Silvoso