THE CHURCH AT ANTIOCH
Key verse 11:26
“and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year
Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught a great number of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”
This morning’s passage is a significant event in the history of the work of the gospel and in the spread of the gospel. The risen Jesus had told the apostles in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” In chapters 1-7 we studied about how they were witnesses in Jerusalem the place where Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified. In chapter 8 they suffered intense persecution by Saul and with the martyrdom of Stephen, many were forced to scatter to parts of Judea and Samaria. In chapter 9, Saul, a Pharisee and the church’s chief persecutor, was converted on the road to Damascus after the risen Jesus appeared to him. In chapter 10, Peter, the top disciple and leader of the church was given God’s vision to meet Cornelius, a Gentile and to accept him and go to his house and eat with him. Cornelius’ conversion was the very beginning of the gospel to spread to the Gentiles. Peter’s acceptance of the Gentiles as God’s people through their faith in Jesus was a great turning point because Peter himself had to be changed to accept the Gentiles if the gospel was to go to the ends of the earth. In fact, not just him, but the whole church in Jerusalem needed to accept the Gentiles when they believed in Jesus. The incident in chapter 10 of Cornelius and his household believing in Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit was evidence of this
Now in chapter 11 we are introduced to the church at Antioch. The Antioch church, the first Gentile church of believers in Jesus Christ, became the door to which the gospel could spread to the whole world. They became a model example of the life of Jesus through their Bible study and their raising Bible teachers and sending out missionaries and giving sacrificially to other churches.
In this passage may God help you to see his sovereign plan to use you and your fellowship to be a Bible teaching and missionary sending fellowship. May God give you the sacrificial heart of Jesus and his vision through this passage.
Part 1. God saves everyone who believes in Jesus (1-18)
Look at verse 1, “The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God.” This event had happened when Peter visited Cornelius’ house. Some call it the “Gentile Pentecost”. As Peter preached the gospel message, emphasizing that Christ died to forgive our sins and that God raised him from the dead to give us eternal life, it penetrated deeply into the hearts of all the Gentile listeners. Then the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began to praise God and speak in other tongues. They felt in their hearts that God had accepted them as his children. The heavy weight of sin was lifted from them. Eternal life filled their souls. They could begin to see the kingdom of God and have a living hope in God’s kingdom.
On seeing this, Peter ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. It was a most glorious day in Cornelius’ house and in Christian history. However, not everyone was happy about it. Look at verses 2-3, “So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’” Peter was criticized for going into the house of uncircumcised men, that is Gentiles, and eating with them. To the Jews, this was an unthinkable thing because the Gentiles houses were not kosher, that is spiritually clean. They imagined Peter must have eaten pork with them and made himself unclean. Perhaps they began to doubt Peter’s judgment to lead the church because of this event.
Until this time, the disciples of Jesus were all Jews. They were by nature, narrow minded and focused only on Jewish salvation and their own problems and people. They were still stuck in their thinking that Gentiles were unclean people, simply because they were not the descendants of Abraham and did not have the law of God. However, with the admittance of Gentiles, after the incident with Cornelius in chapter 10, a question arose. How could Jews and Gentiles coexist? Some wanted to make everyone a Jew in order to have fellowship in the church. This would mean that every male who was not circumcised, needed to be circumcised. This means that they would have to follow all the dietary laws as well. There was a strong possibility that the church would be segregated or even divided.
How did Peter respond? He could have said, “Listen, you guys, I am Peter the Rock. Jesus chose me as his top disciple. How can you challenge my authority? Do you want me to throw you out of the church? You must listen to me.” But he did not. He was not defensive to their criticism. He was very calm and explained to them with detail, precisely and giving all the facts, how everything had happened in verses 4-10. Peter shows us how we should respond to criticism when we do the work of God. We should not become defensive, but be patient and calm and support our actions by showing how God is working. Peter appealed to them on the basis of fact, the work of the Holy Spirit, God’s Sovereign rule and leading in this historical event. The clear point he was trying to make through this was that had God opened the door to the Gentiles through the conversion of Cornelius and his household.
This event convinced Peter that God makes everyone clean through faith in Jesus Christ. Peter was clearly convinced and his heart became broadened to accept Gentiles as God’s people. In verses 11-14, Peter explains how God orchestrated his men with Cornelius. The meeting could happen only because God was working simultaneously in Peter and in Cornelius for a specific purpose. In verses 15-17, Peter explained how the Holy Spirit had worked in the listeners. He gave the example of Jesus’ words in verse 16, then he made his conclusion. Let’s read verse 17, “So if God gave the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” Clearly, it was God who led Peter to accommodate the Gentiles. Peter realized that in fact, he could not nor should oppose God. This was God’s work and God’s doing because of the Holy Spirit.
The Bible tells us that God wanted to make his people a light for the Gentiles and not just think about themselves and their problems. Isaiah 49:6 says, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
When the Jerusalem church members heard Peter’s factual explanation, authenticated by the Holy Spirit and the word of Jesus, they had no further objections. Let’s read verse 18, “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God saying, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.’” The Jerusalem church opened their hearts through Peter’s explanation of this event. They broadened their hearts to have God’s heart which is deep and wide. To Luke, the evangelist and historian, the acceptance of Gentiles into Jewish fellowship by the Jerusalem church was a significant event in gospel work. For us, God wants all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ to have such a broad view of other believers and God’s work all over the world.
When Missionary Sam Falta came to talk to us this winter about God’s work in China and his vision to go to North Korea we could see that God is using people other than UBF in his world mission work. Those who attended the African Bible Conferences in the past reported that they love to dance for a long time and sing before their worship service. This is God’s way of working over there to make a spiritual environment. God does not want us to be fixed minded that he only works in one way. God wants us to accept all kinds of people who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as we do and who have the evidence of Holy Spirit.
Part 2. The gospel gives birth to the Antioch Church. (19-30)
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 the Jews.” God was working among the scattered believers who fled from Jerusalem after Stephen’s martyrdom. They traveled north to Phoenicia; to Cyprus, which is an island off the Turkish coast, and Antioch which is 300 miles north of Jerusalem. They had endured severe persecution, but they were not gloomy and dark as they traveled along. They were full of joy over the good news of Jesus Christ. When they found other Jews, they shared the good news with them.
Let’s read 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.” Here, the message spreads from Jews to Greeks, that is Gentiles. This was not done by the Jerusalem Church Jewish members, it was done through the Jews of Cyprus and Cyrene. They must have testified to Jesus just like we heard at the Spring Bible Conference through the Bible messages. They said, “For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” They must have given their life testimony, “One thing I know, once I was blind, but now Jesus helped me to see.” They told them that all they needed to do was to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and that they will be saved and have the promise of eternal life. They were very eager to tell the good news of Jesus Christ.
They told them that Jesus Christ will change your heart and your view of others and your view of life, when you believe in him. They told them, “you don’t have to yell at your family members after working hard or to suffer from road rage. You can have peace and joy and be truly happy”. The Gentiles who had imagined that their own gods they knew about in their Greek culture were like spoiled little children with temper tantrums that often resulted in human tragedies, were moved by the good news of the gospel that told about the forgiving love of Jesus.
What was the result when the message about the Lord Jesus was simply preached? Look at verse 21, “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” God was pleased when the gospel was preached to the Gentiles. This was Jesus’ intention to bring others into his flock. He had said in John 10:16, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock and one shepherd.”
Jesus was speaking through these believers and giving them his shepherd heart. The Greek listeners understood the message, repented of their sins and accepted the gospel. Person by person, a body of Christ formed at Antioch, a Gentile city in Gentile land.
What kind of a city was Antioch? Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman world after Rome and Alexandria. It was full of idol worship, gross immorality and indecency. It had a population of about 500,000 people. It was the Mediterranean doorway to the great Eastern Highway, 300 miles north of Jerusalem. It was a cosmopolitan city full of Romans, Arabs, people from Northern Africa, Jews and Greeks. Why would God choose this place? God chose this place because it was where east met west and many people came together. It was like a great mixing bowl. It was like Metro Center where the green line, orange line, red line and all the other metro lines meet and many people change lines. It was the perfect place to meet people from all nationalities, just like Washington DC. I once read that there are representatives of over 110 different nationalities in the Washington DC area. Washington DC and its surrounding suburbs are the best place to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations.
It is amazing that a great number of people in Antioch who once worshiped idols, believed the message and turned to the Lord for their salvation. This shows their thirsty and desperate desire to know God and the truth. In the past, they had lived with the very fatalistic and foolish philosophy, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” They accumulated many credit card debts to enjoy exotic foods, cheap thrills, computer games and vacations. They suffered from Spring fever, Summer beach party fever and Saturday night fever.
But when they heard the good news of Jesus and that God loves them and created them for a clear purpose, they accepted it, and they were set free from being slaves to their sinful passions and lusts. They were freed from fear and the grip of evil spirits. They began to realize the great love of God for them personally. They especially were moved by the grace of Jesus and were filled with such joy and great peace. They became new creations in Christ. They cut up all their credit cards and paid back their debts. They stopped going to wild late night parties on the weekend and instead studied the Bible and shared Bible testimonies together and prayed late into the night.
They said, “I once lived to make my own name great, but now I want to live for Jesus’ name and make his name great. Halelujah!” They were like the YDJ team that enjoys singing together and studying the Bible together and sharing testimonies together on Friday nights instead of going out to parties. They joined together and prayed for Antioch to be a holy city and a blessing to the world. This transformation was done by the power of God through his mighty words. The gospel of Jesus has great power to save people, even cities. In Romans 1:16, the Apostle Paul calls the gospel “…the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” The gospel is the power of God.
What happened as a result of this great work of God? News of this reached the ears of the church in Jerusalem. Look at verse 22, “News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. “ Now we see the evidence of the changed hearts of the Jerusalem Church. They believed that God was working in the Gentile believers there. They were willing to send one of their best members to go and witness to this work in the Gentile city of Antioch, they had heard about. So they sent Barnabas. Shepherd Barnabas became Missionary Barnabas. Who was Barnabas? His name was originally Joseph and he was a Levite from Cyprus (Acts 4:36-37). However, the apostles gave him a new name, “Barnabas” which means “Son of Encouragement” because he was not only so encouraging to others with his faith, but he was also very sacrificial and giving. Especially, he was very humble and patient, especially with new believers.
When Barnabas arrived in Antioch, he saw the evidence of the work of God there. He witnessed the new lives of people who were transformed by the gospel and I am sure he was very glad and praised God for this work. If Barnabas had been a typical ambitious church worker, he could have been sorry because the work of God was done in another fellowship and not his own fellowship. He could have felt a sense of competition with the growing work of God in Antioch. He could have made his own church and boasted that his church was the biggest in the world. But Barnabas was not like that. He did not exercise his authority. He saw the Antioch church members from God’s point of view. He saw each one as a precious child of God whom Jesus had bled and died for in order to save and use.
What did he do after he saw the evidence of the grace of God? Verse 23 says, “…he was glad and encouraged them to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” What does this mean? As young believers living in a godless and immoral culture, the believers were vulnerable to be tempted and to slip back into their old lives of sin. They could be tempted by old friends to come back and sin with them. Unbelieving parents might have kicked them out of their homes and threatened to cut off all financial support because they refused to believe in their family gods and worship Zeuss. Barnabas knew that faith must be rooted in God’s word or it will be emotional and uncommitted and fruitless like the seed that was sown on the rocky heart soil. He also knew that faith of the young believers could easily become just “group faith” and not personal faith. Then their would be no personal fruit in their life. So he encouraged them to remain true to the Lord with all their heart. This means to keep your faith in Jesus’ love no matter what. Accepting with all our hearts that God loves us no matter what hardships, rejections, trials and difficulties we go through is to remain true to him. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Barnabas brought many people to the Lord in Antioch. However, he realized that he could not do all the work by himself. The church in Antioch was growing exponentially. He saw that the harvest was plentiful in Antioch, but the workers are few. So what did he do? Look at verse 25, “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul.”
Saul as we know was a zealous Pharisee and had been the chief persecutor of the church. But on the road to Damascus, he had a personal encounter with the risen Lord Jesus. From that time his life had been changed 180 degrees.
Barnabas believed that Saul was the right person to help him because he was very knowledgable in the Scriptures and had much zeal for the Lord. What did the two of them do together? Let’s read verse 26, “and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught a great number of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” They taught the Bible to many people. They taught from Genesis, from the Pentetuch, that is the five books of Moses, from the Psalms and from the books of the prophets. They studied the gospel of Jesus and what it meant. They had group Bible study, 1:1 Bible study and testimony sharing. They practiced Bible memorization and sang hymns together. The Antioch Bible center was busy from early morning until late at night. People came in and went out continually. It became the busiest place in the city of Antioch. No matter what the weather was outside, people came to the Antioch Bible center to study the Bible and to learn from Barnabas and Saul.
What was the result of Barnabas and Saul’s coworking together and their earnest and faithful Bible teaching? Verse 26 says that “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” The result was that disciples of Jesus were raised up. This means committed people to the Lord. This means Bible teachers were raised. The strength of any church is not the church building or the size of the congregation or the size of the church treasurery. The strength of the church is the amount of Bible teachers it has and if it is continually raising up Bible teachers. This is the sign that a church is growing. If there are no Bible teachers than the church is not growing. Numbers don’t mean anything if there are no disciples, that is, committed men and women who are teaching the Bible to others. The characteristic of the church at Antioch was that it was a Bible teaching church. This became the strength of the Antioch church. Look at chapter 13:1.This shows a few more Bible teachers names mentioned. 13:2,3 shows that the Holy Spirit sent out Barnabas and Saul, their two best Bible teachers, for world mission work to other places. God could send them because the church in Antioch had a strong foundation in committed Bible teachers, native Greeks who would be used by God to bring the gospel to the Gentile world. Now the Antioch church would become the main focus in God’s work. Jews became the minority of the believers and the Gentiles were now the majority of the believers.
The Antioch church believers were called Christians. This was a great honor. I am not sure if they were the ones who called themselves this, or those on the outside began to say, “Hey, here come those people again coming to tell us about some guy who was raised from the dead, named Jesus Christ. They keep telling us about Bible study and how much they love Jesus Christ. They must be Christians.” But of course they were called this because they followed the teachings of Christ in absolute obedience. This showed how influential they were in the large cosmopolitan city of Antioch. They adopted the name and did not call themselves “The Antioch church.” They liked the name “Christians.” It was surely a challenge to live like Christ. But this name showed that they also belonged to Jesus Christ, not to their Greek gods and funny traditions any more.
We may all be called UBF or say we are from Hope Fellowship or Prince Moses’ Fellowship, or YDJ. But by God’s grace we are all Christians. This is our clear identity. It is a challenge for us to keep this identity and remain united in Christ despite our different ethnic origins, different cultures and languages. Especially it is a challenge for us to be Christ like in our thinking and in our actions. God wants us all to be Bible teachers. God even wants many of us to be missionaries.
As we look at the world, we see that the harvest is plenty, but the workers are few. Indeed, we also live in a post-Christian era despite the Christian influence of many missionaries in the past. The Christian influence seems minute in the world. This is because we don’t see anybody teaching the Bible much anymore. Most people can’t even quote one Bible verse in the Bible correctly. What can we do? Each one of us can challenge themselves and their reason for themselves to call themselves Christians. If I call myself a Christian am I really actively trying to teach the Bible? Do I have God’s vision for my life? Is my ministry like the Antioch church? I realize that there is no comfort zone in living a Christ like life. Jesus always challenges us despite our human condition to feed his sheep and take care of his sheep and go into all the world.
I realize I did not have God’s vision for GMU. I did not actively pursue Jesus’ lost sheep and did not challenge my sheep to prepare for their Bible studies and write testimonies. Now I want to pray that God may make GMU one day to become like the Antioch church.
There is also another characteristic of the Antioch church besides it being the first Gentile church that raised up Bible teachers. It was also a giving church that did not ignore the mother church in Jerusalem and the Jewish believers in Judea. Look at verses 27-30. 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 through the entire Roman world. The disciples, each according to his own ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This amazing work shows that Jesus Christ was truly in the hearts of the Antioch disciples. They did not say, “They are Jews with big noses and strange eating habits. Why should we care about them? We are Greeks.” No. They had the heart of Jesus to offer and to help, using their hard earned money and material things to help their brothers and sisters in a time of crisis.
In addition, they respected the work of God in Jerusalem and in Judea and probably also earnestly prayed form the leaders to be strong in this time of hardship. We also pray for our spiritual leaders in Chicago like Mother Barry. We should keep on praying for her to be strong, have good health and have God’s vision continually. The church in Antioch sent Barnabas and Saul to bring the gifts to them, perhaps thinking that they might not see them for a long time. I’m sure they were sad. They overcome their emotions and sent them off anyway.
Perhaps we don’t want to see anyone of us go out because we will miss our fellow believers here. But God gives us greater joy when we send out others. We need this vision, God’s vision and act on it and then God gives us joy and peace unspeakable. I was surprised to hear people like Matthew Reames desire to go to China, even to North Korea one day. I am sure the music team will miss him, but God will give them greater joy and increase their numbers. This is God’s blessing. The more you give, the more God gives you in return.
Today we learned that the Antioch church was the first Gentile church. It became a model example because it was a church rooted in God’s word that raised up Bible teachers and gave sacrificially. God used this church as the doorway to spread the gospel to the Greek world, that is the Gentiles, and to the ends of the earth. May God help us to learn and apply their love for Jesus, their vision from Jesus and their giving life in our personal life and ministry.