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THE CHURCH IN ANTIOCH

Acts 11:19-11:30
Key Verse: 11:26

In the previous lesson we learned that God had granted even the Gentiles the word of God, the Holy Spirit and repentance unto life. These three interrelated are the key elements in our belief in Jesus and salvation. Since God’s amazing blessing came to the Gentiles, in today’s passage here comes the first Gentile church, the church in Antioch. This short passage shows how the church was established and what kind of church she church was. In brief it was a commendable and praiseworthy church. Let’s see it.

First, telling the good news about the Lord Jesus (19-21). Look at verse 19. “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews.” The scattered believers who fled from Jerusalem after Stephen’s martyrdom traveled north to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. They overcame their human situation and told the message to the Jews.

Look at verse 20. “Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.” The city was founded in 300 BC by Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. He named it ‘Antioch’ after his father Antiochus. Although it was a Greek city by foundation, its population, estimated as at least 500,000, was extremely cosmopolitan. Since it was absorbed into the Roman Empire by Pompey in 64 BC, and became the capital of the imperial province of Syria, its inhabitants included Latin as well. Thus Greeks, Jews, Orientals and Romans formed the mixed multitude and the city was called ‘the third’ city of the empire’, after Rome and Alexander.

Look at verse 20 again. “Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.” Here these “some of them”, the nameless believers were pioneers of the Antioch church. We don’t know their human background at all. What we do know is that they were also scattered believers who had escaped from Jerusalem and had no future security. And they were people from Cyprus and Cyrene. In that situation it could have been easier for them to mingle just with their fellow Jews. But coming to Antioch, they told the gospel of Jesus to the Greeks there. We do not know their biblical and theological background. They simply shared with the Greeks the good news about the Lord Jesus. Surely, it was out of their obedience to the Lord.

When we think about the progress of the gospel being preached to the Gentiles, the gospel came from Jerusalem to the people in Samaria, who were considered as half-Jews and half-Gentiles. Then the gospel was preached to an Ethiopian eunuch with Jewish origin through Philip, and to the Gentile Cornelius and all his household through Peter. Yet, all these took place in the land of the Jews. Now, when the gospel of Jesus was told to the Greeks in Antioch, it entered in the Gentile territory through the unknown scattered believers. This was a historical event in church history.

As we studied, the core of the good news of Jesus is his death and resurrection. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:3,4, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Even to Paul the gospel of Jesus was not out of his great scholarship. He also simply received it and passing the gospel on to others was his first priority. In the same way the pioneers of the Antioch church received the good news of Jesus and told the gospel to the Greeks. 1 Corinthians 1:20-21 says, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” We are sure that this was what happened in the pioneering stage of the Antioch church. Through the preaching of the some handful of believers God did the soul saving work in Antioch.

Look at verse 21. “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” God richly blessed their obedience and simple preaching of the gospel and worked in a great number of people, who believed and turned to the Lord. Thus the Antioch church was established. So Christianity was finally launched on its world-wide mission. The establishment of the church in Antioch was the nameless ordinary believers, different from the churches in Galatia, Corinth, Macedonia, and Ephesus, which were pioneered by the Apostle Paul in Acts.

Second, remaining true to the Lord (22-24). Look at verse 22. “News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.” Here we see in Jerusalem church the influence of Peter, who obeyed God’s vision of “kill and eat” and preached the message of salvation to the Gentiles and explained the work of God in them to the apostles and brothers throughout Judea. Hearing about the great work of God in Antioch, they sent Barnabas to Antioch. Jerusalem church was open-minded to support the first Gentile church, and sent a most suitable person to shepherd God’s flock in Antioch. As we studied in chapter 4, the name Barnabas means “Son of Encouragement.” And he was a Levite from Cypress, a Cypriot (4:36). He was sacrificial, selling his own field to build up the church in Jerusalem. He was especially a man with no prejudice and fixed idea. Although Saul met Jesus and was dramatically changed, the disciples in Jerusalem were reluctant to accept him as a disciple. Rather they were fearful of him, because of their fixed idea about Saul, the former terrible persecutor of Jesus. But Barnabas intervened and told them how God worked in and through him. Then they could accept Saul into their community.

Look at verse 23. “When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord...” In ESV and NRSV, “…he encouraged them to remain faithful to the Lord...” We all know to remain true to anyone is not easy. In wedding there is a marriage vow: “I offer you solemn vow to be your faithful partner in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow…as long as we both shall live.” It is beautiful for a husband and a wife to remain faithful to each one until death do them part. However, when one part becomes unfaithful to the other, problems happen and their relationship suffers even to the point of separation or divorce. In the same token it is so beautiful to remain faithful and true to the Lord. But when we do not remain faithful to the Lord, problems arise in the individual’s life and in the community also. As believers, our lifetime struggle can be to remain true to the Lord to the end.

When we read Old Testament, God suffers a lot because of his people’s unfaithfulness. Regardless of the unfaithfulness of his people, God sent his Son Jesus to this world to show his faithfulness, his unfailing love. Our God is a faithful God. And Hebrew 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Our Lord Jesus wants us to remain true and faithful to him. There is a hymn song which says, “I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause; I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause.”

Look at verse 23 again, “He encouraged them to remain true to the Lord with all their hears” and in NRSV, “…to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion.” To remain true and faithful to the Lord, steadfast heart and devotion are important. In our Bible reading, Bible study, prayer and worshipping, we need steadfast spirit so that we can remain true and faithful to him. Even in our home, school and work place we need to be aware of the Lord and remain true to him.

Then what happened? Look at verse 24. “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” In NASB and ESV, “for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith. And a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” Barnabas could encourage them to remain true to the Lord, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith. We can wonder how Luke could write that he was a good man, since Bible clearly says, “No one is good—except God alone” (Mk 10:18; Lk 18:19). But Luke did not just say, “He was a good man,” but, “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” So his goodness was not his own goodness, but one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5: 22,23). He bore the Spirit’s fruit of goodness continually in his heart and life until this character was formed in him and he was recognized as a good man. Also, when he was full of faith, he overcame human limitation in doing good to encourage and build others up. Thus Barnabas was a man of good influence.

Then what happened when the believers remained true to the Lord encouraged by Barnabas? Luke commented, “And a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” What a great blessing! We see that when they remained true to the Lord with steadfast devotion, the Lord himself worked powerfully, bring a great number of people to himself.

Third, disciples being called Christians (25-30). Look at verses 25 and 26. “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought to Antioch…” This showed further what it meant that Barnabas was a good man. The conjunction “then” indicates the church situation that a great number of people were brought to the Lord. In that state He must have prayed seeking for God’s direction. Then he could remember Saul, who had been sent off to Tarsus when the Jews in Jerusalem tried to kill him because of his bold preaching there. It was around 7 through 8 years before. He must have known of Saul’s calling to be the apostle to the Gentiles (9:15,27), and acknowledged that Saul was an excellent Bible teacher and a master of Greek philosophy. Barnabas was mindful both of the church and Saul. He brought Saul to Antioch. It was for the sake of God’s work.

Verse 26b says, “So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.” Here we see Luke wrote, “…taught…” differentiating from telling the good news in verse 20. The two Barnabas and Saul dedicated themselves to Bible teaching for a whole year. We can infer that the great numbers of the people were not the Jews, but Hellenists, so were unfamiliar with the Scriptures. They needed intensive, steadfast Bible study so that their faith might be rooted and grounded in the Scriptures. And the two met their need through their devoted Bible teaching. They were ready and dedicated Bible teachers. This was also one clear characteristic of Antioch church.

Then what was the result of their committed Bible teaching? Verse 26c says, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” This is a very short description, but it conveys a deep meaning. First of all, through their devoted Bible teaching, disciples were raised among the great numbers of the people who were brought to the Lord. Then they were called Christians unprecedented. At that time Christian was not an honourable title, but a contemptuous nickname. For at that time to many people Jesus Christ was still one who was helplessly and miserably killed on the cross. Yet it was obvious that the disciples in Antioch were so indentified with Christ that they were called Christians. They were living in Antioch, which was the city named after Antiochus Epipheness, and the cosmopolitan with various kinds of ungodly cultures, and noted for luxurious immorality. But they were so different from the people of Antioch. They were distinguished with their pure love and zeal for Christ. They were zealous and crazy for Christ. So they were called Christians. It is amazing that the name Christian had run through all generations even up to 21 centuries. Now the name Christian is an honourable name to the believers, like the cross, which had been the emblem of suffering and shame but become the way of life and glory.

Then what could be their lifestyle as Christians? Undoubtedly, they strove to imitate the life of Christ. In the gospel story when Peter made the confession of Christ, Jesus then began to teaching them the way the Christ had to live. He said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Lk 9:21). After this Jesus told the disciples the way they had to go: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). So we can say that Christians are true disciples of Jesus who follow the way of Christ, denying themselves and taking up each one’s cross daily and follow him.

It is interesting that the word “Christian” appears three times in the New Testament. In Acts 26 Paul stood before King Agrippa and governor Felix at the time of trial and testified to Jesus who appeared to him and who suffered and rose again from the dead and wanted to convince the king. Then King Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28). It showed that in their social norm no one was willing to be a Christian. And Peter said in 1 Peter 4:16, “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” Christians are to suffer in this world. When any Christian suffers being rejected simply because of the name Jesus, the individual Christian is bearing the name Christ Jesus to the praise and glory of God the Father. May God many Christians in U of T campus, who are willing to be identified with Christ in this post Christian era.

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Look at verses 27-30. “During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” This indicates that the disciples were sacrificial and giving, and so was the church. They also knew the importance of being connected to the Jerusalem church, headquarters of that time. They were humble. They acknowledged that Jerusalem church supported them by sending Barnabas. Paul said in Romans 15:27, “…For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.” This is a right attitude. At the farewell with the elders in Ephesus, Paul remembered the words of Jesus and recite, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

We thank God for Antioch church. The church was characterized with nameless people’s simple preaching of the gospel, remaining true to the Lord, and devoted Bible teaching which resulted producing Christians, namely, true disciples of Jesus. May we learn of these characteristics of the Antiochene church and our church become like the church of Antioch in our times.

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