Now there were 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.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” – Acts 13:1-3
In Acts chapter 8 we learn of a great persecution launched against the fledgling church in Jerusalem. The Apostles themselves stayed behind in Jerusalem, but the rest of the church fled and scattered around the region. Antioch, a city of Syria to the north of Israel, became an early stronghold of Christianity. The importance of the church in Antioch is witnessed in this text by the fact that leaders of the church were chosen by God to “set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
Among the noted prophets and teachers of the church in Antioch was a man named Simeon, who was called Niger. Niger is not a name, but the Latin word for black. Obviously, Simeon was a black man. To so describe a man in his name is not unusual in the New Testament. James and John were the “Sons of Thunder.” Thomas is further nicknamed as “the Twin.” Simon is better known as Peter, which means rock. And there was Simon the Zealot, and Matthew the Tax Collector. So it is generally concluded that Simeon was called Niger because he was black.
Jesus truly knew no prejudice. He helped Jews along with Gentiles. He ate and drank with prostitutes and Tax Collectors. He sat down with hated Samaritans. He called Galilean fishermen to be Apostles. He sent Philip to teach the Ethiopian Eunuch. He called his Jewish disciples to accept and work with Gentile converts. From the very beginning, he called people of all races and all nations into the church. Jesus suffered and died to redeem all races and nations. Jesus rose again to bless all the world.
Simeon was not merely a member of the Christian Church. He was a leader in Antioch. He was a Prophet and a Teacher. He was a man of authority and responsibility such that he was among those leaders who commissioned Paul and Barnaba to begin their missionary travels. It is a striking realization. Think about it: More than 1,800 years before the Civil War and 1900 years before the Civil Rights Movement a black man helped lead one of the most influential churches in the history of the world.
That shouldn’t be news, of course. Black men and women have proven themselves as capable leaders for thousands of years, both inside and outside of the church. But given the history of prejudice and exclusion demonstrated by the church in recent centuries, the presence of Simeon, called Niger, surely provides an example of why things should have been better — and why they still can be better.