Acts11vs19-29; 13vs1-3. Church Growing Pains
Jesus Christ always encouraged his disciples to have a vision for the whole world and not just for their own work. In John 4vs35 He tells them "Do you not say four months more and then the harvest? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest." He was condemning people who would always postpone the work until later. He was criticising people who were so blinkered into tunnel vision for their own field of service that they never noticed the world-wide harvest that Jesus Himself was interested in. He was calling attention to the readiness of people to trust Him now, if only they knew what He had to offer them.
Again in Acts 1vs8 Jesus channelled the disciples from where they were, in "Jerusalem", to where they could be, "the ends of the earth". The early disciples did catch a vision beyond themselves. They did not always progress as voluntarily as they should have done, but various events do show us the direction in which they were pointing.
In Acts 2vs39 Peter has a vision for subsequent generations, an often neglected field, when he says to the Jerusalem crowd "The promise is for you and your children and for all who are afar off - for all whom the Lord our God will call." Have you ever considered writing your Christian testimony and faith down so that future generations in your family can 'hear' your witness?
In Acts 5vs14-16 the church's influence spreads out from Jerusalem to the surrounding towns as people hear what is going on and want to discover for themselves. Every congregation should see itself as its own "Jerusalem". Then it should adopt other areas as its own "Judea", say surrounding and similar peoples, its own "Samaria", nearby people of different culture and ethnic groupings, and "the ends of the earth", perhaps a missionary or national church in every one of the continents of the world that could be partners in Christian outreach.
In Acts 8vs4, 5 there is a relevant example to the travelling Christian public of today. "Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went." Major airports give an opportunity to reach people from all over the world. Railway stations and bus termini are focal points for many people from other cities, towns or villages. I am writing this chapter in St Ives, a very popular Cornish holiday town. In one summer here several hundred different cities, towns and villages of England, as well as various European and people of other nationalities could be reached for Jesus Christ simply by talking to the individuals who make up the crowds on the harbourside. If we can travel then we can speak to people wherever we are. If we cannot travel we can speak to everybody who comes to us. Paul is an example of the latter, Acts 28vs30 and 31.
In Acts 8vs25 Peter and John took an opportunity to share the gospel in the many villages in between Samaria and Jerusalem. They had been sent to validate Philip's ministry in Samaria. Having done that they used their journey home to good effect, stopping off to preach where they could. In 1991 I travelled with a Sudanese evangelist from Khartoum to Atbara by bus and by lorry. We broke down twice, which was disconcerting when there had been nothing but sand to see for hour after hour! However the mechanic who was carried for such emergencies was able to mend our elderly vehicle each time and we eventually reached our destination. The ride was very hot, very jarring on the body as the bus leapt about on the ruts and ridges, and very dangerous as my head kept hitting the luggage rack (though fortunately my face avoided the broken steel chair-back in front of me). But what impressed me most of the journey was a conversation with my elderly Christian friend from Sudan. As we came on a few mud houses by the wayside, or stopped and let someone walk to the foothills where there seemed to be a little village, I would say "How many Christians in this village?" He would reply "None". "Who is going to tell the people about Jesus Christ?" He would say "Well, no one as far as I know. It is too dangerous." To go and start speaking of Jesus would probably mean a severe beating or worse at the hands of the local religious leaders because of their fanatical opposition to Christianity. Thank God for Christians who witness personally and with literature in the bus stations, sowing precious seed which will bring a future harvest because God has promised it.
We have already seen how Ananias reached the Gentile world by welcoming Saul to Christianity, Acts 9vs15. One contact at Imperial College, London, led to many families in a Bangladeshi village becoming Christians when the student, a village chief, returned home. We only ever had one letter to go by, but that is what appeared to happen. When a Christian begins to witness to all people in his own home environment, God may expand that ministry all over the world.
We have seen in the last chapter that Cornelius' household was led into the kingdom of heaven by a change in the direction of Peter's ministry. The overriding factor was to actively do God's will for the present time, even if criticism followed. Is it better to be criticised by Christians for helping to save the lost, or to be criticised by God for being disobedient? Peter chose the former, and God honoured him.
In a moment we will look at the church in Antioch to see how those Christians reached beyond their own four walls (if they had four walls!)
Another example would be Acts 16vs6-10 where Paul, Silas and Timothy join Luke. Together they respond to the call from Macedonia. Their own ideas to go to the province of Asia and then to Bithynia had to be sacrificed. God closed every door except the one He wanted this missionary team to enter.
Finally in Acts 19vs21 Paul decided it was right before God to go to the centre of the Empire, the city of Rome itself. He knew that Rome ruled the world and if a Roman church could be encouraged it could reach to most parts of the world with relative ease. It was a question of seeing what was happening in the church on a much larger scale than just the local work. Every Christian is working in the same work. Each one must faithfully do what God is calling him or her to do. As it is done, a focus should also be kept on how this particular part fits into the overall plan that Almighty God is putting together.
THE CHURCH AT ANTIOCH - Acts 11vs19-30
The city of Antioch was the third city of the world at that time, after Rome and Alexandria. It is often known as Antioch in Syria in order to distinguish it from another Antioch in Pisidia or Galatia, that town being mentioned in Acts 14vs19-21. It sent trouble-making Jews to hinder Paul's ministry at Derbe and Lystra and that area. On a New Testament map you will see both clearly marked: the one we are concerned with being 350 or so miles north north-east of Jerusalem, on the River Orontes. Today a town Antakya in Turkey marks the site.
Because of the heavy influence of Judaism on the Christians in Jerusalem, God seems to have chosen Antioch to be the model of the new church, the expression of the body of Jesus Christ. They were formed by people who looked beyond their own group, and they never lost the vision. They were a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles, and the thrilling story shows us they were a model church in many ways for us today.
1. The church at Antioch contained model men. The first mention of the city in the New Testament is in Acts 6vs5, where we see one of the deacons appointed to administrate the widows' allowance was
(i) "Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism". All we know about him is vs3 "(he was) known to be full of the Spirit, and wisdom". That was a qualification for his position. In Acts 11vs19 it is reasonable to assume he would have returned home to Antioch when the persecution arose in Jerusalem.
The whole story of the church at Antioch, however, revolves around the people mentioned in vs20. "Some of them, however,
(ii) men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks also, telling them the Good News about the Lord Jesus." Perhaps Lucius of Cyrene, 13vs1, was one, but by not revealing names God is saying to us: "See how the Spirit of God is moving, causing the church to grow". Men are incidental in one real sense. It is God who must build and do. He often uses men, but not for the man's glory, only for His own. Never worry that no-one seems to take notice of your efforts for the master - He notices, and in His economy lots of "nothings", with an almighty "1" in front of them, make a very high figure indeed!
(iii) Barnabas was a key figure who is named.
(iv) Saul or Paul is another. Again God moves in different ways. Never criticise a man who has plenty of publicity for Christ and say it is wrong. God, who controls all, gives some men that responsibility to manage for him. Barnabas means 'Son of encouragement', and by comparing 4vs36 and 11vs23 you will see he lived up to his name. "Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement)" "he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts." The Authorised and Revised Standard Versions translate the word 'encouraged' as 'exhorted'. Barnabas was being like Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the Greek verb being 'parakleo' one called alongside to help another. A testimony to Barnabas is given in vs24 "He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord." Notice he was full of the Holy Spirit and faith: either on its own is dangerous; in fact as Paul says "the Spirit produces faith". One must doubt a person is filled with the Holy Spirit if there is no evidence of faith in their daily life. Lack of faith is a sin and sin stops the flowing of the Holy Spirit.
Notice how Barnabas cared for one man especially, Paul. In 9vs26-30 we see him daring to bring this converted enemy to the apostles in Jerusalem. Here, after Paul has been away learning about his Lord, finding out his faith, strengthening his spiritual walk, Barnabas now gives him a teaching task! 11vs25-26 "Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people." That is excellent follow up. A Christian must care for the individuals in his own family, in the Bible Club class, in the congregation. Recognise and give opportunity to one another's talents and gifts. Barnabas acted evidently upon his own initiative, (there is no mention the Holy Spirit said ...etc) yet I am sure it was the indwelling and guiding of the Spirit of God that prompted this.
(v) Agabus, the disciples, 11vs28, 29, and many others, 15vs35, all played their role amongst the model men of Antioch. The prophet of future famine, the stewarding of possessions to those they had never met who had a need, and the teaching and preaching of the Word of God, were carried on by these men. All working for the Lord who was building His own church.
2. The church at Antioch had a model Master, 11vs26. "The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch". What's in a name? A simple, but very profound point this. The preaching and teaching of Barnabas and others had an effect upon the lives of the people. They changed their life style. They lived out their faith. If they heard at "Barny's Bible Club" that as followers of Jesus Christ they should be doing a certain thing, and they weren't doing it now, they changed their life pattern to do it! This brought them the name "Christians". Their Gentile neighbours called them "Christianoi", Christ's men (they called themselves "the Way"). Those outside the faith could see these men were like their leader Jesus Christ. They did not have to live up to a name they had taken - they were called Christians because of what they did (and did not do) in their lives. This is a test for every Christian today. What do the people around you think of you?
3. The church at Antioch followed a model method. Who controlled the church's methods? 1vs8 "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." 8vs1 "On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria." God was in control, helping men to move on his commands. 11vs19 "Those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch". God, the Spirit, directing through circumstance, and Christ's men responding in faith. It was a new thing to go, but they went.
Acts 11vs20 "Some men from Cyprus and Cyrene went to Antioch, and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus." Stephen had spoken to Greek Jews before, but these men spoke to plain Greeks. In faith, they were going on a new venture for God as he prompted them. The result will always be the same when His people follow Him like that: vs21 "the Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord."
Later on we see the same method being followed 13vs2-3 "While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them'. So after they had fasted and prayed (testing the spirits to see if they were from God) they placed their hands on them and sent them off." Perhaps this is a glimpse of an elders or leaders meeting. The Holy Spirit said something, a new thing, they checked and then obeyed. That is the model method.
The four true notes of church development seen here.
(i) Continuity - every movement is the outcome of an earlier one.
(ii) Absolute freedom - every movement is a new departure.
(iii) Unbroken unity - every movement is part of one whole.
(iv) Perpetual variety - a great variety of gifts in people were used, the
apostolic gift, the evangelistic gift, the prophetic gift and the pastoral gift.
No one man ministry. No stereo-typed pattern. No boundaries, except for unity. Make that your model method and you won't go far wrong. Be where the Holy Spirit can prompt you.
4. The church at Antioch embarked on a model mission. Back to the leaders' meeting in Acts 13vs1-3. How important it is to see beyond our small, immediate congregation, to the world-wide work of Jesus Christ. The church at Antioch was worshipping and fasting. Then "the Holy Spirit said, set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." vs2. What? Send our best men away? Who is going to look after us? Just imagine the complaints you would get in some churches today. But the Antioch church believed more than one man could minister. "In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers" 13vs1 lists five, and 15vs35 "Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord." The ministry of the church is not limited to one type of person who was ordained to wear his collar back to front! All the saints are involved. Antioch Christians knew this so they were not afraid to spare Barnabas and Paul. They also believed the church was world-wide and not just local. They could see beyond their own four walls to Cyprus, Perga, Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. They knew the lost needed Christ. And they were prepared to share not only their money (as they gave to the Jerusalem church in famine), but also their teachers and evangelists and ministers.
They were not rash or foolish. They tested what the Holy Spirit said. As we are to try the spirits to see if they are of God, so they did. 13vs3 "So after they had fasted and prayed" (that's the testing), "they placed their hands on them and sent them off." They were prepared to temporarily lose good men doing a good job, for "the work I (God) have called them to do". That is always the best job. Learn to distinguish between the good and the best. Recognise the gifts in each other to minister to one another. Encourage the development of these gifts. As Paul wrote to Timothy "stir up the gift within you" (Authorised Version) 2 Timothy 1vs6, and he gave him an outlet for the use of the gift. By faith Timothy exercised it when Paul gave him the opportunity.
Just think what may have happened to Christianity if the church at Antioch had been disobedient at this point. No Paul on the mission field. If they had done nothing else but send Paul out their heavenly reward would be great enough. Praise God they obeyed.
Not only that - they took an active ongoing interest in events. See what happened on their return. 14vs26, 27 "they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles." The church had been praying, and now they listened to testimony of what had happened in answer to their prayers. Paul and Barnabas were their representatives on the field, and the church was very interested in them as people. Vs28 "they stayed there a long time with the disciples." It is what that verse omits that is important. 18vs23 after his second trip "after spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out..." again do you notice the omission? Nothing about preaching and teaching. Paul and Barnabas were at home in Antioch to rest. To recharge themselves spiritually. To drink in what was ministered to them by others. What a great need there is for this amongst our missionaries today.
A local church should support, pray intelligently (kept well-informed), then care for and build up those out in "the work I (God) have called them to do".
5. The church at Antioch was a model mixture. A mixture is a "compound bringing different substances into a whole". We have already seen how Greeks and Jews are involved together here.
Right back at the founding of the church when Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to find out what irregularities were happening, we find his judgement based on one thing. 11vs23 "When he arrived and saw evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts". God had fitted him for that discerning task by birth and friendships. Now comes a doctrinal dispute. 15vs1, 2 "Some men came down from Judea to Antioch, and were teaching the brothers: unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved. This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them". We will see how this dispute was resolved in the next chapter.
We have been brought around in a circle. Model men, a model Master, a model Method, a model Mission and a model Mixture. A model mixture must be made up of model men, otherwise something will bubble over, or go lumpy, or go sour. Let me challenge you to spend time alone with God to put yourself right and get yourself into the position where God can put you into the mixture, for His glory.
Even in the resolution of doctrinal dispute the Antioch Christians were looking beyond their own work. They had hearts that beat in time with the Lord Jesus' heart. He had said of Himself "the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost" Luke 19vs10. They were continually doing that themselves, and, where they could, they were helping others in the task too.
Share with the group a work someone else does in the church and pray together for that person and work.
Then, share about a work near you but not in your fellowship. If you don't know about anything – make it your homework!
If your pastor leaves to go abroad, your youth leader goes to a new job with a Christian group, can God still be in control?
Give some principles to guide younger Christians who may be confused and some theology to help them cope!
Why is 'No' sometimes very hard to say but necessary to be obedient?