The first verse here refers back to the beginning of chapter 8, where a great persecution broke out against the Church after Stephen’s death; bringing about a great dispersion; resulting in widespread evangelism
persecution’s attempt to stamp out the church actually becomes the occasion for the spreading of the gospel.
But now in Acts, we’re seeing another conversion – an unexpected one – both with the conversion of Cornelius, and the conversions we see here at Antioch; and that is the conversion of the church.
their hearts, outlooks, minds, understandings, prejudices, narrow-thinking when it came to who could receive the free gift of life;
Even though this is what Jesus had told them (1:8) – they still needed God to pry them out of themselves to make them more like him.
Saw this begin with Peter & Cornelius; see it continue here in chapter 11.
Began only in Jerusalem to Jewish people.
Spread to Samaria & Samaritans.
Chapter 10 – first Gentile conversion; Now here in ch 11 – a whole group of Gentile converts & probably predominantly Gentile church being established.
This marks a turning point; and now the church is read to explode outward!
The gospel spreading to the Gentiles shows to them, that there is no border for Christ! – whether geographical, ethnic, cultural! there is no square inch that is off-limits to him and there is no people or person that is not of interest to him or beyond his reach;
there is no border control for Christ – when people come to enter into his Church, they don’t hold up an ID badge that proves they are this type of person or that type; where some are let in and some aren’t based on how they look or where they’re from;
the only ID badge that anyone needs is faith in Jesus; and if they have that then they need nothing else!
And the early church had to be converted in understanding and in extending the grace; and we know that Peter, even after his vision and experience with Cornelius had a relapse (Gal 2); because this was no easy conversion for the early church – it was part of their identity that they were marked out as God’s by their Jewish ID Badges – food laws, circumcision, torah (law);
But they needed to see that now faith alone in Christ alone was what marked them of as God’s own and brought them into fellowship with the true people of God – the church.
And sometimes we still need to be converted in that kind of way. We need to remember that the gospel isn’t only – and not only that the gospel isn’t only but that the gospel isn’t primarily – for people like me.
“not just for my kind of people but for all kinds of people.”
And so we need to be converted out of our prejudice that would cause us to be cold towards those who are different; or unknown and unfamiliar; or that we might be tempted to think of as particularly sinful or outsiders or beyond God’s reach or interest.
But the church is starting to be converted and after the conversion of Cornelius – the gospel’s initial crossing of the barrier to Gentiles – after that, in the book of Acts, the church is ready to explode outward.
In Cornelius we saw that one Gentile person and his family came to faith in Christ; here in ch 11 at Antioch we see a whole church-full of Gentile persons come to faith in Christ.
It’s like, imagine a giant concrete dam, that has cracks and weak spots; and up to this point the dam has started to break at the cracks and little shoots of water have burst beyond the barrier, but now the dam completely gives out and the floodgates have been opened and from this point forward the gospel pours out into the ends of the earth – freed from it’s confines to Judaism and Jerusalem; not held in to one people group and restricted from others but freely fully going forth to all people;
and doing what had been God’s plan from the very beginning, in his promise to Abraham – that he would choose a people for himself to bless, but that that people would bring God’s blessing to all nations as they would be included in the people of God – all who believe whether Jew or not.
And the limiting factor isn’t the gospel – it’s power, or it’s reach, or it’s scope to save not only those who are near but are far off…
the limiting factor, is the willingness of those who have received the salvation of Jesus; to proclaim the salvation of Jesus.
And the reason the church in Antioch is formed is just that – that these people – v19 – who were scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed – like we looked at in chapter 8 – they spread the gospel as far as that persecution pushed them.
Wherever God took them – these unnamed, anonymous Christians – wherever God took them – even through the seemingly unideal situation of being on the run persecuted – they used that seemingly unideal situation as an opportunity to share about Christ to those they came into contact with who hadn’t yet had opportunity to hear about him.
You may have heard recently that RC Sproul died; and I’m very thankful for his ministry and the impact of his life; but at the same time, you can be tempted into thinking – people all over the world aren’t going to be writing tributes to my memory after I die – and so what good can I really do?
But passages like this – help us to see through the lie of that – no one knows the names of these evangelists in Antioch – But God knows their names; and even though they had no earthly fame or remembrance – they served God – for his glory not their own; and even though they had no earthly fame or remembrance they still were used by God in very significant ways.
This church in Antioch became the sending church and home base for Paul’s missionary journeys – which changed the course of history – all because of these unnamed anonymous Christians who took it upon themselves to tell others about the gospel.
And we see described here the crossing over of that barrier in the contrast between vv 19 & 20.
In v19, it’s specified that at first they were spreading the word only among Jews; but then that changes – v 20 – “Some of them – men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good about the Lord Jesus.”
I don’t know that they knew about the situation with Cornelius – or whether this initial evangelism occurred before that;
But even if they did know about Cornelius, still this isn’t the result of some directive or mission they’ve been given by the Jerusalem church – it’s something they’ve taken upon themselves by following the lead and prompting of the Spirit of God that is propelling them outward; and by not judging things by human standards but rather living out the belief that no one – not even a Gentile – is too far off for the arm of God’s grace to reach and rescue.
unnamed, ordinary believers taking the gospel where they go; result: a church is founded in the third largest city in the Roman Empire; which became a home-base of sending missions further into the Gentile world.
Ordinary – but they can do extraordinary things because – v21 – “the Lord’s hand was with them”
God does the extraordinary through the ordinary. They simply “spread the word” – but God’s hand is sustaining them, strengthening them, and working powerfully through them.
We don’t put our confidence in ourselves; but we put our confidence in that we are weak but he is strong to work through us.
We don’t boast in ourselves but realize that the only reason anything good can be done through us is if he does it.
And while it is the Lord’s hand that brings people to him in faith – he does it, but he doesn’t do it without us; his role of bringing people to faith doesn’t make our role of sharing the gospel unnecessary; it makes it possible.
But the result isn’t only that there are new converts; but that a new church is formed.
These unnamed ordinary believers have become church-planters.
And, Church-Planting is essential to the growth of the kingdom of God and the expansion of the gospel.
And the reason it is essential, is because converts to Christianity need churches: they need places where they can grow in their walk with Christ – and the assumption of the Bible is that you cannot grow and thrive in your walk with Christ without Christ’s Church.
Of course, being a part of the Church doesn’t make it automatic that you grow – it doesn’t guarantee that you are a Christian. But what is a guarantee is that if you willfully neglect the Church, your walk with Christ will suffer.
We see this in vv22-26 – that after these new converts turn to Christ, this new group of believers receives support through encouragement, leadership, and teaching from the already-established Church, in order for this infant group of believers to become their own established mature church.
v22 – news of this new community reaches the church in Jerusalem, and so they send Barnabas; and he sees what God is doing among them and he encourages them in their new faith – to continue in it, to persevere in it – v 23 – he encourages them to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.
What a wonderful ministry. He encourages them.
He doesn’t come in and dig around for their sin that he can blast them on; he doesn’t come to find everything they’re doing wrong; he doesn’t come into their lives in order to micromanage their lives; he doesn’t come into the church to rise to power and control everything or push his agenda; the effect of his coming isn’t that people are demoralized and discouraged; but that they are strengthened; they have renewed zeal and passion and desire to serve and follow after Christ.
Because of his role in their church – they want to keep going instead of give up.
Remember, they are new believers – many of them coming not out of judaism – where at least they would already have knowledge of scriptures and morality – but coming out of a pagan life where much more immorality would be the norm; and so in these new believers’ lives there would be a lot more wrong than right; but Barnabas is nevertheless able to encourage them.
And that doesn’t mean that he never rebukes or corrects them; I’m sure he did; but it means that even when he rebuked and corrected them it was so obviously and clearly for their good, and he was so obviously and clearly for them, that they had no doubt of his motivations.
But it’s often easier to notice, and communicate to someone, what they’re doing wrong; but someone with the gift of encouragement is able to see and commend the thing they’re doing right – even if the “right” is a drop in the ocean of the “wrong”; it sees; it affirms; and strengthens the resolve in another to continue in the direction of the right.
And if we were as aware of what others do right, as much as we tend to be aware of what we do right; and if we overlooked what others do wrong, as much as we tend to overlook what we do wrong; then we would be on the right path to being able to affirm God’s good work of grace in others and encourage them in that direction.
Maybe God can use you to come alongside a new believer to encourage them to remain true to the Lord. Maybe God can use you to bring needed encouragement to a believer who has grown weary with serving Christ; maybe God can use you to bring strength to a believer who lacks confidence to use their gifts or doubts that God could use them. Sometimes what people need the most – and what people get the least – is a little bit of affirmation and encouragement.
The specific thing he encourages them to do, is v23 to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.
This has to be the reason that the people around them give them the name Christian (v26 – generally agreed that this is a descriptive name given to them by outsiders, probably not by Jewish outsiders but pagan outsiders).
This name means essentially, “Christ-ones”: belonging to Christ; following Christ; adhering to Christ; being true to Christ.
And the reason they give them this name, must be that they took to heart Barnabas’ encouragements:
with all their hearts, they were true to Jesus. They were in Christ; they followed Christ; they spoke of christ; they loved Christ; they worshiped Christ; and so they were called “Christ ones”
There have been a number of names referring to the early believers to this point in Acts; but here this is the first time they are called Christians; and the reason is that they were first of all Christian.
Christian is a term that has lost and been sucked dry of so much of it’s original significance. Christian in our day and age is a term that merely denotes one is a “cultural Christian” – they aren’t rampant atheist nor are the muslim or jewish; they say “merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays” – what it means often, is “american”; but to make that mistake of confusing the notion of being a “Christian” with being “american” is to deny the central message of the book of Acts:
it’s to be reconverted back to what God throughout Acts is trying to convert the church out of – the captivity of the gospel to a culture or an ethnicity or a geographical boundary – which only ever kills and weakens the gospel and makes Christianity a thing of nominal secondary importance;
but they so exalt Christ as of first importance that they are seen and singled out as a counter-culture.
And this naming of the church here ought to be instructive to us – that it’s ok, even necessary, to be singled out for your faith;
and of course we know that there can be bad reasons to be singled out – and there are many Christians singled out as Christians for reasons we might think don’t represent true Christianity at all; but often our response to that is to avoid any being singled out and simply blend in.
But just as there are bad reasons to be singled out; so there is a good and necessary reason to be singled out.
And the question is, what would outside observers call us?
The reason they were called Christians is that they were true to Jesus with all their hearts: Jesus was the heartbeat of their lives.
And what would outside observers – if they had to pick a term to describe what we were all about – what would it be?
Barnabas had no desire to keep all the ministry to himself – he knew that he couldn’t do it all himself –
in the body of Christ, no 1 person does it all; Barnabas doesn’t want to do it all, and he doesn’t want them to look to him as if he is the one who does it all.
but he looks for help from others and for opportunities for others to do ministry – and that’s where Saul comes in. He knows Saul to be a gifted God-ordained teacher; and so he finds him and puts him to work to use that gift of teaching.
they are in a predominantly Gentile church in a gentile region; and so who comes to his mind but the apostle to the Gentiles?
Saul had been in Tarsus since fleeing the plots against his life resulting from his preaching about Jesus; And Barnabas goes and finds Saul and brings Saul in to give him the opportunity to use his gifts.
This is amazing; because it shows that Barnabas had real humility to know that he couldn’t do it all; and it shows that Barnabas had real love for the church – such that he was willing to bring Saul in, even though, there was the chance that sharing the ministry with Saul would lessen his own role and prominence in the church.
And that’s exactly what happened:
“The story began “Barnabas and Saul,” but as you read the book of Acts you see that it quickly became “Paul and Barnabas,” and it stayed that way to the end.”
But Barnabas was perfectly happy to play “second fiddle” to Paul
And, this could only happen if Barnabas was doing what he was doing not for his own prominence and glory, but for God’s. For him it was all about God’s glory – not his.
And too many people approach serving in the church, or serving God – as the way to step into the limelight; to gain prominence or notoriety or gain control over or to impress others; and they are only serving themselves; but Barnabas is serving God – and so he wants to do what is best for the church – and what is best for the church is for him to find someone who he knows can meet their needs, perhaps better than he can; even if that means him stepping aside to make room for the other.
And it’s important to note, that Barnabas found a teacher.
Because, what the young church needed, was sound teaching.
Teaching, then, again in the book of Acts, is emphasized as a necessary part of a healthy growing community.
Back in Acts chapter 2 – one of the things the church was devoted to was the apostles’ teaching. Not lots of programs; not fancy worship productions; not extravagant buildings and amenities; but rather the thing that is often sacrificed in churches today and in terms of what people look for in churches today.
Often they want a preacher who is funny or entertaining; but less often do they want a preacher who teaches sound doctrine.
“sermonettes make Christianettes”; because being underfed with the word of God stunts our growth as Christians.
And because they had sound teaching, they grew up into maturity, such that they not only stood on their own as a church, but were able to give back to the church that had given to them while they were in their infancy.
This relationship between the older Jerusalem Church and the newer younger antioch church, isn’t a 1-way street – but 2-ways.
Ministry ought to always be a 2-way street.
They aren’t forever subjected to the previously-established church but grow up into their own maturity; they aren’t kept in infancy and dependence upon the more mature, but are enabled to stand on their own 2 feet
and as a result, they reciprocate, and give back.
evidence of their maturity is their generosity.
“Christian growth is shown to be a matter of maturing; not simply numerical increase; and an important sign of maturing is generosity.”
And their gracious giving is a reflection of their awareness of how gracious God had been to them. Because Christians are generous because they worship a Generous God and have been redeemed by a gracious savior – who pours out upon them not only what they lack but what they could never earn or deserve
But a further evidence of their maturity isn’t just their generosity, but their solidarity.
Their giving is “An expression of solidarity across social and cultural boundaries”
Even though one church is Jewish and the other is predominantly Gentile, even though they were separated geographically – they nevertheless were united – and they express their unity in Christ by giving and receiving to one another.
And so a new church was established – and ever since then, the church has continued to plant new churches – to see new churches be established in order to reach new converts of Jesus, so that those new converts would be able to be a community of Jesus – such that they could reach their community for Jesus.
All because they live first and foremost for Jesus.
Story: “Alexander the Great once learned that in his army was a namesake, another Alexander, who was a notorious coward. “Alexander the Great, who conquered the world when he was just twenty-three, called the soldier before him and said, ‘Is your name Alexander and are you named for me?’ The trembling coward said, ‘Yes, sir. My name is Alexander and I was named for you.’ The great general said, ‘Then either be brave or change your name!’”
Thankfully Jesus is more gracious to us when we fail to represent him as we ought; but nevertheless it is a reminder that – in an age when often, even Christians don’t want to be known as Christians: that it is an honor to bear the name of our Lord and Savior; and that in bearing that name we ought to strive to reflect the character- the love, mercy, grace, and holiness, of the one who’s name we bear.