Week of July 9, 2017
The Point: Encourage people in their relationships with Christ and one another.
The Church in Antioch: Acts 11:19-26.
 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.  But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.  And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.  The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose,  for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.  So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul,  and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. [ESV]
“Background. Here in these verses, Luke provides a “bridging passage” between what had gone before and what lies ahead. From the gospel’s beginnings in Jerusalem, we have already seen its expansion into Judea and Samaria – two significant boundaries in the mind-set of those who had come to think of Jerusalem as the center of religious life. Now we are taken to Antioch, one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire, with a population estimated in the region of half a million. Antioch was headquarters to Rome’s Syrian legion. The city lay inland, but within a few miles was the port city of Seleucia, gateway to the Mediterranean. Of importance to Luke’s description was the fact that Antioch had a large Jewish population, and following the persecution that arose in Jerusalem at the time of the death of Stephen, many believers fled to Antioch [11:19]. Another figure who now came to the surface was Barnabas, mentioned in Acts 4:36 and 9:27. His real name was Joseph, but he was given this nickname “Barnabas” because it meant “son of encouragement” [4:36]. Of all the figures to send to Antioch to investigate what had been taking place, it would be difficult to imagine a better man than Barnabas. Had they sent someone of more native prejudice, of less natural enthusiasm or warmth of personality, the story of the church would have been different. But there was a third person, in addition to Stephen and Barnabas. It was Saul of Tarsus, whose violent opposition and subsequent conversion had been told at length in chapters 8 and 9. The last we heard of Saul, he had escaped over a Damascus wall in a basket and made his way to Jerusalem, where his life was once more in danger. He had been taken to Caesarea and then sent off to his native town of Tarsus. Nothing had been heard of Saul since (possibly for ten years), and Luke was setting the stage for his reappearance. Thus the stage was set: men and women who had left Jerusalem following the persecution surrounding Stephen’s death made their way to Antioch (as well as Phoenicia and Cyprus), but spoke the gospel only to fellow Jews. But others, believers from the dispersion (Cyprus and Cyrene), spoke to Gentiles also, signaling a massive change in thinking and perspective. As a result, the church in Antioch was now made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers, a distinction that may not have been wholly apparent to the casual eyewitness. Thus, the church in Jerusalem (which always had a tendency to conservatism) sent Barnabas to investigate [11:21-24]. Three matters emerge from Luke’s description, beginning with his statement that God’s hand was with the church.
The Hand of God. Before Barnabas was sent to Antioch, Luke adds his own interpretation of what had happened. The hand of the Lord was upon the scattered Christians who had left Jerusalem, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord [11:21]. The hand of God signals the invisible God making His power and might visible and tangible. As a result of God’s hand, there could be no doubt that His mighty power was with the church in Antioch. Thus, the church in Antioch grew. Despite the problems that normally ensued in relationships between Jews and Gentiles, when God is present in the power of the Holy Spirit, no ethnic or social barrier can disrupt His work. An important theological signal is given to us in the way in which Luke records what occurred: God’s hand was with them as the men from Cyprus and Cyrene spoke to the Hellenists [20-21]. God blessed their efforts. The blessing was not something that occurred apart from their evangelistic zeal, but in and through their ministry. Here is a proof that God’s sovereign grace must never be pitted against zeal in Christian mission. It is true that God alone can save an individual. Salvation is of the Lord [Jonah 2:9]. Faith is a gift of God [Eph. 2:8]. God draws His people to Himself through conversion, involving illumination, regeneration, faith, and repentance – a complex chain of events that sixteenth-century theologians called “effectual calling” or that Luke calls here the hand of the Lord. From eternal predestination to final glorification, the salvation of a sinner is the accomplishment of the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mutually working together in a bond of love and sovereign commitment to do that which none of us have the power to do. To go astray here is to fall into a serious error, one that distorts the nature and degree of our plight and casts aspersions on the enormity of God’s grace and power that is required to deliver us. But at the same time, God employs means to save us. He has not only chosen whom He will save; He has also chosen the means by which that person will come to faith. God’s “calling” employs individuals engaged in robust evangelism. He tells Paul, I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me [Acts 26:18]. Faithful evangelism, speaking the truths that constitute the gospel, was what these men did in Antioch, and God blessed their efforts by adding to the church. Luke tells us that a great many people were added to the Lord [Acts 11:24; cf. 2:41,47; 5:14]. They were not added to the Lord because they were added to the church. Rather, they were added to the church (the company of people that comprise the people of God) because they were added to the Lord. “It is the believer’s relation to Christ that puts him in connection with the Church; not his connection with the Church that puts him into a saving relation to Christ” (George Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, p. 235). Luke is showing us what can happen when folk faithfully engage in evangelism in a prayerful manner. God may attend with His blessing and draw men and women to Himself. Unless this work is committed to the Lord in prayer, looking for His blessing, it will all be in vain. The task before us is as urgent and necessary as it was in the time of the apostles: a dying world is moving at breakneck speed to a lost eternity, and we have in our grasp the solution to their plight. God could save without our efforts, but He has commanded us to evangelize and will hence sovereignly gather them in through our efforts.
Barnabas: The Encourager. News of the growth of the church in Antioch caused some concern in Jerusalem [11:21]. It was the number of Gentiles that caused the most concern. Concern, however, can quickly revert to control, and it has been a feature of ecclesiastical polity that in addition to a laudable desire to obey the Great Commission, there can often appear a less attractive compulsion to control. Oversight can quickly become a matter of stifling initiative and destroying zeal. To those who have recently discovered the grace of God, it can often appear negative and discouraging. The motivation to control is understandable, of course. After all, the church has a responsibility to ensure that the faith and practice be kept pure. Some form of “connectionalism” between the church in Jerusalem and the church in Antioch was evident by this concern. At the very least, the church in Jerusalem did not see itself as wholly independent from the believers in Antioch. It is a matter of greater significance and more daring initiative than we might initially think that the church in Jerusalem chose Barnabas as its investigative agent [11:22]. No more encouraging ambassador could have been chosen than Joseph – the man whose nickname, “Barnabas,” meant “son of encouragement.” Barnabas was a man whose life bore visible fruit. Luke described it this way: For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith [11:24]. Luke knew Barnabas and accompanied him on several missionary tours. He had witnessed firsthand his godliness and friendly disposition. It seems that Luke was saying that Barnabas was glad at what he saw because of his godly character. This was the kind of man he was. He was utterly genuine and sincere, and he loved the Lord with all his heart. The importance of Barnabas will emerge later, following Paul’s rift with John Mark, but his response to the grace of God evident in Antioch made him glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose [11:23]. We might ask ourselves whether we are encouragers by temperament. Are we the ones carping at the sidelines or are we earnestly seeking the growth of the church? It is easy to be the former, but it takes determination and discernment to do the latter. In addition to encouraging the brothers in Antioch, Barnabas did something that no one else might have done. He went to Tarsus in search of Saul. This initiative would change the shape of world history. Barnabas saw an opportunity for the gospel in what had happened to Saul, and someone needed to find him and encourage him to that end. It was time to lay aside understandable prejudices resulting from the death of Stephen and others and see in Saul’s conversion the mighty hand of God. He saw the best in people rather than the worst. Do you? We need to pause and consider the cost of Barnabas’s initiative to himself. From this point forward, Barnabas will retreat into the background as Saul (Paul) grows and outshines his partner. Soon it will no longer be Barnabas and Saul [Acts 11:30; 12:25; 13:2], but Paul and Barnabas [Acts 13:42,46,50]. The light will shine on Paul rather than Barnabas, a point that is all the more significant in the passage before us as we discover that it is Barnabas’s own decision to seek out Saul of Tarsus. The search for Saul was evidently a difficult one. Why? Would he not have been at his ancestral home? The answer seems to be given in Paul’s description of the consequences of his conversion to Christianity in Philippians 3. He had suffered the loss of all things [Phil. 3:8], a testimony that many have seen as a reference to his disinheritance by his Jewish parents. We can imagine Barnabas asking for Saul in the city of Tarsus, only to be ignored. No one knew where he was, and, perhaps, they were hardly disposed to tell Barnabas anything that might aid the church. This search for Saul reveals something extraordinary about Barnabas. He discerned that the church was in need of gifts that he did not himself possess. He was willing to publicly admit that his own gifting was inadequate for the task ahead. What Barnabas knew of Paul in the decade that passed since his previous visit to Jerusalem we can only guess. It is possible that news of him had filtered through. But Barnabas made the bold and self-deprecating decision that the church needed someone other than himself to take it forward, even if this would cost him the limelight. It says a great deal about Barnabas’s humility. He put the needs of the church before his own advancement and self-glorification. He played the role of a servant even when that role pushed him back into the shadows. It was the mark of a true servant of God. It revealed both great wisdom and great humility at the same time. It was, in fact, Jesus-like. Are you willing to do what Barnabas did: take the lowly road where there is little of the limelight, content that you are doing it for Jesus?
“Christians”. Barnabas evidently found Paul and brought him to Antioch. And what then? Now that Paul had arrived and there were evident signs of blessing in the church, would it not make sense to “strike while the iron was hot” and launch out into the surrounding neighborhoods with an evangelistic mission? This might well be what we would expect, but it is not what occurred. For a year, Barnabas and Paul met with the church and taught a great many people [11:26]. The church was saturated with the truth. Truth matters. Doctrine is important. God’s people need instruction in the faith. It was in the wake of this teaching that believers were first called Christians. The truth affected them in such a way that their lives portrayed the doctrines they espoused. They not only talked about Christ, but also resembled Him in their actions. It was evident to all that they belonged to Christ. The term Christian was used on two other occasions [Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16], and on both it was used by those who were outside the faith. It is important to realize that the term was not meant to be endearing. It was not a name coined by the church as a description of itself. Not until the second century do we find Christians using this term to describe themselves. They were known as Christ’s people because they spoke so often of Christ and were followers of His way. It is worth asking again whether our own Christian churches and communities would be referred to by a term that reminds those who are outside the faith of Jesus Christ. If we were charged with “being Christians,” meaning that we resembled Jesus Christ, would there be sufficient evidence to convict? The name Christian was initially used to distinguish believers not from non-Christians, but from Jews and Gentiles. Up until this moment, everyone belonged to one or the other grouping. What was so distinctive in Antioch is that a third way emerged – someone who was neither a Jew nor a Gentile, but a Christian! There was something revolutionary about them. Those of us who live in the West no longer live under the influence of the Judeo-Christian ethic as much as our ancestors did. Our society is rapidly becoming secularized. The reserves that Christianity once poured into the culture have been spent, and Christianity is regarded as a relic of a bygone era. We may find ourselves hankering for the past in which we might think life was easier. Undoubtedly, young people face temptations today that many of us would not have dreamed of in our own youth. Perhaps we draw the conclusion that the church cannot possibly survive, let alone thrive, in such a society. But what emerged in Antioch, a pagan Roman city, was a community in which Christian values and zeal were so palpable that unbelievers could see it, even if they derided them for it. Such an environment sifted the wheat from the chaff. Only true Christianity could survive in such an environment. Sooner or later, nominal Christianity will accommodate itself to the pagan culture; it will adopt its values and conform to its levels of acceptability. If Christianity is no more than “keeping up with the Joneses” and the “Joneses” become increasingly pagan, the result will be that such Christianity will itself become increasingly pagan. What showed itself in Antioch was something entirely countercultural. In such an environment, there is no mistaking the true church. When its members are truly committed to Christ, the result is something that shines brightly. It may prove costly to shine for Jesus in a godless society, but in doing so we become the beacons of hope for a dying world. Nor should we underestimate the way such a light can be a draw for those whose lives are engulfed by darkness. Continue to shine brightly, Christian, and pray that God may use it to draw lost souls to the light of Jesus Christ through you.” [Thomas, pp. 316-324].
Questions for Discussion:
- Who was Barnabas? Why was he the right person to investigate the events at Antioch? What does his bringing Paul into the situation at Antioch tell you about Barnabas’s character?
- What is the significance of hand of the Lord in verse 21? What is Luke telling us about the events in Antioch with this phrase? What is the connection between the hand of the Lord and a great number who believed turned to the Lord?
- What is the relationship between the work of God in a person’s salvation and the church’s witness to the Gospel to that person? Why are both necessary in the work of evangelism?
The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Pillar, Eerdmans.
The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.
Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.