Unreached Network

Jacob “The Patchwork Man” Baradaeus

I’m really enjoying Moffett’s History of Christianity in Asia, and am struck by this paragraph summarising Jacob Baradaeus (Yaqub al-Barada’i) and his extraordinary church-planting impact. Here’s the paragraph:

“Jacob never really lived in Edessa, his episcopal seat. The police were too hot on his trail… For over thirty-five years, from 542 to 578, Jacob eluded the spies and soldiers of the empire. He kept constantly on the move, hastily finishing his work in any town in a day or night and quickly moving on before he was discovered. He travelled thirty or forty miles a day, all on foot. Riding a donkey or a horse, he thought, was too much of a luxury for a missionary. Most people took him for a beggar because his clothes were so tattered and pieced together that he was called Barada’i, “the patchwork man,” which is said to be how he got his nickname, Barada’i… He planted a trail of churches across Asia, which were to spread from Syria to India and which survive to this day and take his name as “Jacobite” Syrian orthodox.”

Moffett, Samuel Hugh, A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume I, 245.

Here are some observations from Jacob’s life that can help us think about mission today:

  1. The toothpaste effect

If you squeeze a tube of toothpaste at one end, the toothpaste comes out the other. Jacob was driven eastwards by the Christian emperor in Constantinople, Justinian, because of some his views, and this resulted in fruitful mission across less-evangelised regions. Sometimes this is how Paul’s “since I no longer have any room for work in these regions,” (Romans 15:23) works out. When there is no more room in the claustrophobic, political Christianity of Constantinople, take your gifts to the unreached.

Persecution can also create this toothpaste effect. “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word” (Acts 11:19). So Jacob, constantly on the move, kept moving from town to town, and as a result more people got reached and more places got churches.

  1. Itineration

Although he was Bishop of Edessa, he spent hardly any time in Edessa. He was constantly on the move. Throughout history there have been men and women called to this kind of constant gospel itineration. I believe that the itinerant approach to ministry is sorely needed today. Who are the men and women who will move from place to place, year after year establishing the word of God in new towns and villages?

Mor Jacob, the universal bishop, set out on his mission touring Syria, Egypt, Armenia, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Isauria, Pamphilia, Lycaonia, Lycia, Phrygia, Cana, Asia Minor and the islands of Cyprus, Rhodes, Chios and Mitylene, and also into Mesopotamia, and Persia.

Mor Ya’qub Burdono (St. Jacob Baradaeus) (syriacchristianity.info)

  1. Planting churches that outlive you.

Jacob’s style was to ordain local men as leaders in each place, very much the apostolic approach (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). He moved on pretty fast, entrusting churches to local leaders and to the Holy Spirit much sooner than they were ready. He is credited with personally ordaining tens of thousands of clergy (somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000). He built and organised a network of churches from Syria to India, a denomination which has survived 1500 years.

  1. Underground ministry

Jacob was an undercover apostle, undistinguishable from a travelling beggar in his rags, constantly in disguise, escaping, hiding, tricking the authorities.

“Sometimes his pursuers would meet him face to face but not recognise him. Thinking him a beggar, they would ask, “Have you heard any secret word about that deceiver, Jacob?” and he would say, “Yes, a long way back of here I heard some men say that he was about, and if you hurry perhaps you will catch him.” So they would rush off, discover nothing, and be left “beating the air, biting their fingers, and gnashing their molars against the man mighty in the Lord.” Moffett/ John of Ephesus, Life of James.

To Western readers this kind of trickster personality may seem distasteful. For those witnessing to the gospel where it is illegal, however, these kinds of stories are highly inspiring, part of the leadership training syllabus, and often get a big cheer from the listeners. This, too, is instructive for those working in many places today. The Chinese church, for example, have learned to venerate Jacob.

“St. Jacob is a hero and relevant to the modern day because he shows how to start underground churches with diligence and secrecy.”

The Undercover Bishop (chineseorthodoxy.blogspot.com)

Those are a few lessons, then, from the exciting life of Jacob the Patchwork Man.