18. One Step Backward and Two Steps Forward (Acts 11:19-30)
19 So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. 23 Then when he had come and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; 24 for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. 25 And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came about that for an entire year they met with the church, and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
27 Now at this time some prophets205 came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. 29 And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. 30 And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders.
It is with good reason I have entitled this lesson, “One Step Backward and Two Steps Forward.” In terms of time, Luke has taken a step backward. In Acts 11:19 we find ourselves in Acts 11:19 at exactly the same point in time (or so it would seem) to Acts 8:1-4. We are taken back in time to the persecution which arose on account of Stephen, and to the scattering of the church. In Acts 8:4–11:17 Luke has described the way in which the gospel was proclaimed and received in all of Judea and Samaria. When Luke takes up the persecution and scattering of the church in Jerusalem in Acts 11:19 and following, he does so to show the propagation of the gospel to the Gentiles, with the first major church founded being at Antioch.
But if our text is a step back in time, it is easily two steps forward for the gospel. Not only are Gentiles saved, but an entire Gentile city—Antioch—is impacted with the gospel, an impact which will continue to grow long after the lives and ministries of men like Barnabas and Saul. It is, in fact, this church at Antioch which God ordained to be the launching pad for the gospel to many nations. It is from Antioch that Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:1), soon to become “Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 13:4ff.), will be sent for as missionaries. It is also Antioch which will play an interesting role with Jerusalem. It will be ministered to by those from Jerusalem, and it will, in turn, minister financially to those in Judea. It will also be the church in Antioch which will respond to the heretical teaching of some from Judea, by sending Paul, Barnabas, and others to Jerusalem where the so-called “Jerusalem Council” will be convened which will make a landmark decision concerning the gospel and the Gentiles.
It is shortly to come in Acts that we will leave Jerusalem and press toward Rome, that we will leave Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem, and turn to Paul. Acts chapter 12 is a farewell to Peter, by and large, and beginning at Acts 13 we will begin to accompany Paul and Barnabas as they go forth with the gospel, to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles. We are, here, seeing a giant stride being taken by the church, as purposed by God and as achieved through His Holy Spirit, working through His church.
The last part of Acts 11 is something like the “tomb of the unknown soldier,” for honored here are great heroes of the faith, and yet men and women who are unnamed and unknown to us, but known to God. These are, for the time being, anonymous heroes, heroes who contrary to their culture, and even contrary to the practice and convictions of their own Christian peers, carry out the implications of the gospel and the commands of Christ. What great lessons this text has for us!
The “Tight-Lipped” and the “Open-Hearted”
19 So then those who were scattered206 because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone.
20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them,207 and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.208
Two very different kinds of people fled from Jerusalem ending up in places which could rightly be called “heathen.” The gospel was clearly in Gentile territory now, and the world would never be the same nor would the church. But before we look at those who proclaimed Christ and the many who believed, let us look at those who did not, who would not. What was the difference? Why did some preach Christ and others refuse? Here, I believe, is a “tension of the text.”
All we are told by Luke is that some—it would appear that they were the vast majority—went from Jerusalem and Judea into the world speaking the word to Jews only. Who would these people be? Luke does not tell us here. He only tells us that some went out speaking to Jews only, while others went out preaching Christ as Messiah to Gentiles. But we are given several lines of evidence which help us to suggest some reasons why one group sought to evangelize the Gentiles and the other did not.
(1) We are told where those people came from who preached Christ to the Gentiles. Those who preached Christ to the Gentiles were men of Cyprus and Cyrene.209 Barnabas, for example, was from the island of Cyprus (4:36). Simon, who carried the cross of our Lord (Luke 23:26) was a Cyrenian. Lucius too was a Cyrenian (Acts 13:1). There is one thing which we can safely and confidently conclude from what Luke has told us: those who proclaimed the gospel to the Gentiles were Hellenistic Jews.
(2) We can therefore infer that the “native Hebrews” did not share their faith with the Gentiles. This is understandable. If the apostles (such as Peter), who were “native Hebrews,” were reluctant to go to the Gentiles with the gospel, surely the other saints would be too. But even more than this, the “native Hebrews” were unable to speak the languages of the Gentiles. We see this at Pentecost, where the apostles were given the gift of tongues, so that they spoke of the mighty deeds of God in the native tongues of those who were “Hellenistic Jews.” Those “native Hebrews” (as I understand the text) did not know these “tongues” and thus wrote the whole matter off as the result of too much wine (cf. Acts 2:5-13). How difficult it would be to “speak the word” to those who spoke a language other than your own! These “native Hebrews” who went out, then, must have tended to associate only with other Jews, whose language they shared and with whom they could communicate. There may have been a cultural element here too, though it is something much harder to define. Likely, the “native Hebrews” were more provincial and certainly less cosmopolitan. They seem to be much more inclined to “keep to themselves” and not very open to association or communication with the “heathen.” And finally, it would seem that there were simply some who saw the gospel as universal, for all men, and thus they simply could not be kept from preaching it to the Gentiles as well.
Initially, I was inclined to think that the evangelization of the Gentiles was a kind of accident, something which no one really meant to happen, but it just did. I thought these saints were so overflowing with joy and love for God, they could not be selective to whom they told about Him. There may be an element of truth in this, but the longer I look at the text the more I am convinced that the evangelization of the Gentiles was purposeful and deliberate, rather than a matter of chance (even divinely “providential” chance). The expression, “preaching the Lord Jesus” (11:20), does not seem to imply mere chance, but clear intent.
There is an interesting interchange of words in verses 19 and 20 which I consider a significant clue to what Luke is trying to communicate here. Luke tells us that those scattered went out, “speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone” (11:19). He then goes on to describe the second group, who did evangelize the Gentiles. He uses two phrases to describe their activity: “speaking to the Greeks also,” and “preaching the Lord Jesus.” The first two instances of the word “speaking” employ the Greek root, laleo, while the third instance “preaching” is the Greek word euangelizo, the same term used in Acts 8:4, also rendered “preaching” by the NASB. In 8:5 “proclaiming” is the rendering of yet another Greek word, derived from the root, kerysso.210
I understand Luke to be saying that the many who were scattered from Jerusalem, who “spoke the word” to Jews alone, were able (and/or willing) to speak only with Jews, which prevented them from sharing the gospel with anyone but fellow-Jews. The normal, conversational word for “speaking” is used by Luke to describe the communication of the “tight-lipped” native Hebrews. But when Luke came to this magnificent small group211 who “preached the Lord Jesus” to the Greeks, although he first described them as “speaking to the Greeks” (the same word used before, of the native Hebrews), he then described them as “preaching the Lord Jesus.” Here is a deliberate evangelism, which begins with a communications link of language, culture, and understanding, and ends with the proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah.
(3) Those who were scattered from Jerusalem would have been inclined to pattern their lives according to the doctrine and practice of the apostles. It has taken a while for this fact to soak in, but I am convinced it is true and significant. As my wife and I talked about this text and about the reasons why so many saints failed to share their faith with the Gentiles, it suddenly occurred to me that these people were taught and led by the apostles, who did not believe the Gentiles should be evangelized. That is precisely the point of the whole account of Peter’s preaching at the house of Cornelius which immediately precedes this text.
We can see from the Old Testament that God had always intended to bring about a salvation for the Jews and the Gentiles. The Old Testament prophets spoke of this. It was a part of the revelation which accompanied our Lord’s birth (cf. Simeon’s citation of Isaiah’s prophecy in Luke 2:32). It was an early, a clear, and a consistent part of our Lord’s teaching as well (cf. Luke 4:22-27; 11:29-32; 13:6-9, 22-30; 20:9-18). Jesus, as He was leaving His disciples behind, gave them the Great Commission, a command to preach the good news to men of every nation (Matthew 28:18-20). In the first chapter of the Book of Acts, the disciples are pressing Jesus to know when Israel will have the kingdom of God restored to it, and Jesus’ words were a gentle rebuke, pointing to the inappropriateness of the question and assuring them that they would receive the Holy Spirit and that they would be witnesses to “the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8).
The apostles, along with all who followed Jesus and His earthly teaching, should have known that the plan and purpose of God included the salvation of the Gentiles. But the fact is that the apostles were “slow of heart,” and what is so clear to us was not at all clear to them. This is why Peter, in his vision, refused to touch the unclean food, even when God commanded him to partake of it. This is why the saints in Jerusalem called Peter on the carpet for going to the house of Cornelius and preaching the gospel as though it were some great evil.
If those who were scattered from Jerusalem were those who were saved at Pentecost or later, and if they were taught “the apostles’ doctrine” (cf. Acts 2:42) and were led by the apostles—these men who were opposed to preaching to the Gentiles—is it any wonder those who were thus brought up in their Christian faith would be “like their teachers”?
As I initially thought about these Judean saints who went from Jerusalem speaking to no one by Jews, I was very inclined to look down on them as prejudiced and willfully disobedient. I now have a great deal more understanding and compassion, for many of these saints were handicapped by their (one) language and culture, and even those who were not were brought up as saints to believe that the gospel was for the Jews alone. No wonder Luke portrays the prejudice of Peter and the Jerusalem apostles and saints just prior to this account of the “tight-lipped” saints who were scattered from Jerusalem.
In contrast to this larger group of those who kept their faith to themselves and within Judaism, Luke tells of a smaller group who purposely evangelized the Greeks which eventually brought about the birth of the church at Antioch, a church which was to become a dominant and driving force in the world of that day and for centuries to come. What set this group apart so that they went about evangelizing the Gentiles, something not only contrary to their own teaching and background, but which was even looked down upon as an evil by their peers and fellow-believers? What made these people live the exception rather than the rule? Let me propose several factors.
(1) The sovereignty of God. In the final analysis, we must both start and end here at the sovereignty of God. When God purposes to save men of every nation, He will do so, apart from men’s ignorance, prejudice, or active resistance. He was thus able to save Nineveh even though Jonah rebelled all the way. If God could use the unbelieving opposition of a Saul to scatter the church so that the gospel was more broadly proclaimed, He could use men like the apostles and the rest of the Jerusalem saints in spite of their limitations and disobedience. God does not achieve His purposes through men because of our grasp of His ways or because of our great vision or understanding. God achieves His will through men because He is a Sovereign God who can even use the rebellion of men to praise Him. The salvation of the Gentiles was the work of a sovereign God, working through finite and fallible men.
(2) The “hand of the Lord was with them.”212 By and large, this statement refers primarily to the success which God gave to their evangelization efforts. That is, God empowered their preaching so that many were saved. But it is also possible to understand that, in addition, the “hand of the Lord was upon them,” moving them to do as they did. The Spirit of God could have convicted them of the need for evangelism and given them the opportunity and the desire to do so. What God sovereignly purposes, God brings to pass, and often by means of His Spirit.
(3) God prepared and equipped them with the necessary background, language, and culture for this task. These men who went forth with the Gospel to the Gentiles were, in the first place, “Hellenistic Jews,” but they were also men from two geographical locations: the Island of Cyprus and the North African city of Cyrene. It would seem that in the sovereign workings of God, He prepared men with a certain cultural background, and with a language (or languages) which equipped them for the task of evangelizing the Gentiles. This could be seen by hindsight, but it would likely not have been understood in advance.
(4) They surpassed their leaders because they lived their lives by what the Word of God taught, rather than by what men taught. I cannot tell you how important this truth is, and how clear. The chronology of events in Acts, as Luke clearly shows, indicates that the preaching of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles by these saints occurred at a time when neither the masses nor even the apostles understood the necessity of doing so. The revelation which God gave to Peter, and thus the lesson which God gave to the Jerusalem church, was not the cause of this evangelistic outreach for Peter’s vision and encounter with Cornelius came some time after the scattering of the church. The conclusion which the church reached, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18), was not the basis for the evangelization of the Gentiles in Antioch, but the basis for the Jerusalem church’s response to the birth of this church, as described in verses 22 and following.
I must linger here for a moment, however, for I dare not let the impact of this incident fail to strike hard in your heart and mind. THESE SAINTS SURPASSED THEIR PEERS, THEIR TEACHERS, AND EVEN THE APOSTLES, BECAUSE THEY DID NOT LET THE LIMITATIONS OF THEIR LEADERS BE THEIR OWN.
I have purposely put this in even larger letters. As a teacher of the Word of God, my task is not to teach you all you need to know. It is, I believe, to teach you some of what you need to know. But my task is that of communicating a sense of absolute confidence in God and in His Word. It is to help create a love of learning God’s Word and some starting point for your own study of it. But the ideal is that you will thereby be equipped to study the Word for yourself, and in those areas of my own prejudice, bias, or just plain blindness, you need not be limited at all. You, like these men of Cyprus and Cyrene, are not limited in your knowledge of the Word of God, or in your obedience to it, by the limits of your leaders and teachers. If you gain no other thought than this, my friend, you have learned much. God does not excuse us for failing to do right or for doing the wrong, simply because that is the way we were taught or led.
Here, I believe, is one of the fundamental differences between the cults and Christianity: its concept and practice of leadership. The cults almost invariably are founded by some “charismatic” leader, who wants to do your thinking for you. You need not trouble yourself to discern the “will of God,” for the cult leader will tell you what God wants you to do. It was different with the apostles. And while Luke does not describe in detail how these “magnificent missionaries” came to act more on the Word of God than their leaders, I can see a number of the reasons in the New Testament. Let us pause to consider how it was that God used the apostles and others to promote the kind of growth and godliness we see evidenced here.
(1) In Christianity, Christ is the Leader, the Head of His church. Peter’s words to Cornelius sum it up: “He is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). Paul frequently makes reference to the headship of Christ, but this text is especially emphatic:
And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:15-20).
(2) In the church, leaders are servants, not “lords.” Because Christ is the Head of the church and He is the “Leader,” His leaders are servants. Jesus contrasted the leadership exercised by His disciples with that of the Gentiles (cf. Matthew 20:20-28); Paul spoke of himself as a gentle nursing mother (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12), and he contrasted his leadership style with the authoritarian domination of others:
For you, being so wise, bear with the foolish gladly. For you bear with anyone if he enslaves you, if he devours you, if he takes advantage of you, if he exalts himself, if he hits you in the face. To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison. But in whatever respect anyone else is bold (I speak in foolishness), I am just as bold myself (2 Corinthians 11:19-21).
Peter taught elders to lead not by dictating, but by example (1 Peter 5:1-4):
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow-elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4).
And finally, John, in his Third Epistle, warns of Diotrephes, “who loves to be first among them,” and thus, “does not accept what the apostles taught” (3 John 9).
(3) The apostles had confidence in God, the Author and Finisher of our faith. His work in men’s lives is accomplished (in large measure) through the Word of God and the Spirit of God.
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:32).213
As we search the New Testament, we see that the apostles had confidence in the Word of God and in the Spirit of God214 to convince men and to change lives. They believed that leadership is by God’s working through the Word and the Spirit in men’s lives. And so, when Paul referred to those who did not agree with him, he conveyed his confidence in God’s ability to change the minds of men:
Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you (Philippians 3:15).
(4) The cultists and false teachers do not want men to be left alone with their Bibles; they want to tell men what the Bible teaches, and thus to promote their own distortions of the Word of God above the Word itself. In a passage that does not seem well understood, John warned the saints of would-be Bible teachers, who offered to “teach” them what the Bible said:
As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life. These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. And as for you, the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for any one to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him (1 John 2:24-27).
John is here exhorting his readers to abide in the Word of God and in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life as found in God’s Word. There were those who were going about offering to “teach” these saints what the Bible said, but it is evident that they were distorting the Word. John’s response was to remind these saints that the Word of God, when illuminated by the Holy Spirit who indwelt them, was all that they needed. John had confidence in the Word of God and in the Holy Spirit, and thus He told these saints that this was enough. If the Word of God and the Spirit were all that were necessary, they need not listen to these would-be teachers.215
It would seem that because of their confidence in God’s working in the lives of the saints through the Word and the Holy Spirit, the leadership of the apostles tapered off as time went on. When you read through the Book of Acts, we find that it was initially the apostles who taught, preached, and led. But as times passes and the Book of Acts develops, leadership begins to pass to the hands of others who have grown and matured in their faith. Peter’s leadership seems to fade, and James seems to become more dominant (or a least prominent). Barnabas will move from the “driver’s seat” to the “passenger’s seat” in Acts. The apostles, who initially seem to make all the decisions regarding the church in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 6:1-6; 8:14), seem to give way to the elders of the church and to others, who seem to take a more aggressive leadership role as time goes on (cf. Acts 11:1-2, 18, 27-30; 15:1-2).
As you find the apostles growing older, and facing the approach of death, you will see that their last words express confidence in God’s working in and through those they will leave behind. And there is the strong exhortation to these who will be left behind to rest in God and in His Word. So we find Paul stressing the Word of God in his second epistle to Timothy, especially in chapter 3, and Peter underscoring the importance of the Scriptures in 2 Peter, chapter 1, along with warnings by both Paul and Peter about those who would distort the truth of God’s Word (cf. 2 Timothy 4; 2 Peter 3:14-18).
(5) The apostles had confidence in those who trusted in God and in whose lives God was at work, knowing that the Word of God would adequately equip them for any work God called them to do.
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do (Hebrews 4:12-13).
And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another (Romans 15:14).
I believe that while the apostles were not sinless nor infallible, the way the Lord Jesus had taught them to lead was, to some degree, self-correcting. That is, even when the apostles personally failed, those under their leadership were not destined to fail with them. The way God taught the disciples to lead was to lead as servants, with humility, and not as authoritarian dictators. They were to lead in such a way as to point men to God and to His Word, rather than to cause men to develop some kind of dependence upon them. Thus, even when the apostles were wrong, those who were under their authority need not fall prey to the same evil. What a comfort to know that our confidence is not in fallible men, but in a perfect and powerful God, a God who has given us His Word, which is adequate, sufficient, infallible and inerrant. And He has given us His Spirit, to interpret and apply the Word to our hearts and lives. While teachers may expand our understanding and challenge our shallow or erroneous understanding of Scripture, we are not doomed without them, and we are not to blindly follow them. We are to “search the Scriptures,” like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), to follow God rather than men, when men depart from the Word of God, like these Hellenistic Jews, who preached to the Gentiles, even when Peter and the apostles refused to do so.
This handful of noble saints who preached the Lord Jesus to the Gentiles knew the difference between the “teachings of men” and the “teachings of God.” No doubt they had a great love and respect for their leaders, the apostles and the elders. But their grasp of God’s Word, of His goals and purposes, and of His commands, was not limited to that of their leaders or teachers.216 Oh, that God may grant that you surpass me in your knowledge of God’s Word, and in your obedience to it!
Before we press on to consider Luke’s account of the response of the church in Jerusalem to the birth of the church in Antioch, let us take a moment to ponder the place where God sovereignly chose to plant this Gentile church—Antioch. This city of Antioch is somewhat familiar to us, for the church at Antioch will become the launching pad of the gospel to the Gentiles. But most of us, myself included, are not very familiar with this great city, either before the gospel arrived or after. I will therefore cite from those who know better than I about this city:
“Antioch on the Orontes (modern Antakya in the Hatay province of Turkey), situated some eighteen miles upstream, was founded in 300 B.C. by Seleucus Nicator, first ruler of the Seleucid dynasty, and was named by him after his father Antiochus. He had already given his own name to Seleucia Pieria at the mouth of the Orontes, the port of Antioch (cf. 13:4). As the capital of the Seleucid monarchy Antioch rapidly became a city of great importance. When Pompey reorganized Western Asia in 64 B.C. he made Antioch a free city; it became the seat of administration of the Roman province of Syria. It was at this time the third largest city in the Graeco-Roman world (surpassed in population only by Rome and Alexandria). It was planned from the first on the Hippodamian grid pattern; it was enlarged and adorned by Augustus and Tiberius, while Herod the Great provided colonnades on either side of its main street and paved the street itself with polished stone. The produce of Syria and lands farther east passed through it on its way to the west; it was a commercial center as well as a political capital. Because of its situation between the urbanized Mediterranean world and the eastern desert, it was even more cosmopolitan than most Hellenistic cities. Here Christianity first displayed its cosmopolitan character.”217
“Jewish colonization in Antioch began practically from the city’s foundation. By the beginning of the Christian era, proselytes to Judaism are said to have been specially numerous in Antioch; we have already met Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch, as a leader among the Hellenists in the primitive Jerusalem church (6:5). Many other nationalities were represented among its residents: it is Antioch that the Roman satirist Juvenal has in mind when he complains that “the sewage of the Syrian Orontes has for long been discharging itself into the Tiber.” The city’s reputation for moral laxity was enhanced by the cult of Artemis and Apollo at Daphne, five miles distant, where the ancient Syrian worship of Astarte and her consort, with its ritual prostitution, was carried on under Greek nomenclature. But a new chapter in the history of Antioch was about to be written, for it was to be the metropolis of Gentile Christianity.”218
“Antioch was founded in 300 B.C. At the time of its evangelization it was said to have been composed of four cities, each with its own surrounding wall. Reaching around the whole was a long wall which enclosed more area than the city of Rome. The four cities were separated by the two main streets of Antioch. Situated five miles from the city was Daphne, a main center for the worship of Apollo and Artemis. This contributed a great deal to the notorious immorality of Antioch. Yet it had a large Jewish colony, with many proselytes, which provided a starting point for the evangelization of the city.”219
“The dispersed disciples followed the great trade routes by land and sea northward to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. Antioch in northern Syria ranked the third greatest city (about 800,000 inhabitants, including suburbs) of the Roman Empire and was called ‘The Queen of the East,’ ‘Antioch, the Beautiful,’ and ‘Antioch the Great.’ It was beautifully situated on the Orontes river about 15 or 20 miles from its seaport city of Seleucia. It was the capital of Syria and seat of the Roman governor. The population was mainly Syrian, but Greek in language and culture, with a considerable Jewish representation who had equal rights with the Greeks. Here Christianity first contacted and came to grips with Roman and Greek civilization. The moral corruption of Antioch is reflected in Juvenal’s statement, when he wished to say the worst about Rome: ‘The Orontes has flowed into the Tiber.’ Antioch soon superseded Jerusalem as the center of Christianity and remained so for long, producing such honorable Christian names as Ignatius and John Chrysostom, and a famous school of theology.”220
“Something of the extent of this early evangelization movement among the Grecian Antiochians is indicated by the fact that by the time of the Nicean Council in A. D. 325, there are reported to have been more than 200,000 Christians in Antioch alone. Between A.D. 253 and 380, Antioch was the seat of no less than ten church councils, and its patriarchs took precedence over those at Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Alexandria.”221
How God’s ways always surpass man’s. Who would have thought that this heathen city would have become the vanguard of the gospel in the ancient world? The church in Jerusalem did not envision or promote this. If they had known of it in advance, they would have likely resisted it. Who would have thought that such a “God-forsaken place” would have become the city which produced great Christian leaders, and which hosted church councils? An unnamed group of noble men went to a God-forsaken place, preaching the gospel. How God worked then! How He still works today, in ways that we would not ever conceive of nor let alone ask. His ways are always above and beyond our own.
Jerusalem’s Response to
Antioch’s Acceptance of the Gospel
22 And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas222 off to Antioch. 23 Then when he had come and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord;223 24 for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. 25 And he left for Tarsus to look for224 Saul; 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came about that for an entire year they met with the church, and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.225
To some degree, we have seen the negative effects of the leadership of the apostles in the refusal to preach the gospel to the Gentiles by many of those believing Jews who were dispersed from Jerusalem. The redeeming element was that the overall leadership of the apostles helped those who followed to see beyond the prejudices of their leaders and to obey God, rather than men. In verses 22-26, however, we see a very positive form of leadership being taken by the apostles in Jerusalem, and thus the church was edified and blessed, and many others were brought to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The response of the apostles and the church in Jerusalem to the conversion of the Gentiles is Antioch was largely the result of the actions of Peter in going to the house of Cornelius, and of the decision which the church reached after “calling Peter on the carpet” for his actions.
Because of the revelation which Peter received from God, and which the church received (indirectly) through Peter, the Jerusalem church was able to accept the salvation of these Gentiles at Antioch and the birth of a church there. In response, they sent Barnabas to Antioch as their representative, in much the same way they had sent Peter and John to Samaria (Acts 8:14ff.).
Before we consider why Barnabas in particular was sent, rather than one of the twelve apostles, let us first ask the question, “Why was anyone sent to Antioch?” Many had been converted without the involvement of the church. Why not simply leave them alone? Had they not done well enough thus far? The following statement summarizes the primary reason why Barnabas was sent by the church in Jerusalem to the saints in Antioch:
BARNABAS WAS SENT AS A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE CHURCH IN JERUSALEM TO THE NEW BELIEVERS IN ANTIOCH TO CARRY OUT ITS GOD-GIVEN LEADERSHIP ROLE OVER THE CHURCH AT LARGE, THE CHURCH UNIVERSAL.226
Allow me to suggest the biblical basis for this leadership role and some of the ways in which the church in Jerusalem sought to carry it out, both at Antioch and elsewhere.
(1) In His “great commission” to the apostles, Jesus gave to His disciples, the apostles, the responsibility of making disciples of every nation. It is this commission, I believe, that is the undergirding foundation for the leadership which the church at Jerusalem has taken in our text. “Making disciples” begins with the proclamation of the gospel, but it also includes baptizing and instructing the new converts. While the apostles did not initiate the preaching of the gospel at Antioch (God did), they did respond to God’s leadership by following up on these new converts. I believe they did so because it was their duty to do so, based upon the command of Christ in the great commission. This may go a long way to explain why, when the saints were dispersed from Jerusalem on account of the persecution that arose in connection with the stoning of Stephen, the apostles remained behind. For the time being, Jerusalem was the capital, the home base of the church. The leadership must remain behind to continue to give leadership to the churches which would emerge. This would remain the case for some time, and then the headquarters of the church would change location. It was probably Antioch that took up where Jerusalem left off, especially after the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
(2) The church in Jerusalem must have sought to determine whether the pure gospel was preached and to see if these people of Antioch had truly turned from idols to serve God. I believe the apostles and the church in Jerusalem were very sensitive to the truth being proclaimed. Thus, they want to hear the “gospel” that men are preaching and that others are believing. They want to be assured not only of the purity of the gospel, but of the sincerity of the profession. Is it any wonder, then, that Peter rebuked Simon the magician so soundly (Cf. Acts 8)? A false or distorted gospel would have gotten instant attention from Barnabas and from the apostles.
(3) Based upon other instances in Acts (chapters 8 and 19), Barnabas may have been sent to Antioch to determine if these new believers had experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit, whether that be external and visible or internal and invisible. It was Peter and John who prayed that the new believers in Samaria would receive the Holy Spirit, just as Paul would do in Acts 19. If the Spirit had not yet descended upon these saints in Antioch, then the church in Jerusalem would sense the obligation to facilitate it.
(4) The church in Jerusalem seems to be taking the lead in helping establish the church in Antioch. We are not told that these new believers at Antioch constitute a church until Acts 11:26. Up to this time they are merely individual Christians. But from this point on, they are a church, and they are expected to act in accordance with this fact. Had Barnabas not been sent to Antioch, the saints may not have identified themselves with any church. You see, up until this time, Gentile converts would have become proselytes, and they would simply have been included (to some degree) in the worship and teaching of the synagogue. But now, these saints in Antioch are saved as Gentiles, and thus they need not attend the synagogue or keep the law as their Jewish brethren strived to do. The church must be established according to God’s requirements, and it would seem that this was one reason why the church at Jerusalem so quickly and eagerly responded to the report of the salvation of many at Antioch.
(5) The church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch in an effort to facilitate and communicate the essential unity which exists between the two churches. To become a Christian was to become a part of the body of Christ. To become a church was to become one with other churches, especially the church in Jerusalem. I believe this was one of the primary goals of Barnabas as he traveled to minister in Antioch—to teach, facilitate, and strengthen the unity of the body of Christ and the unity of these two churches.
It would be wrong to leave you with the impression that Barnabas was primarily and exclusively the “apostle” of the church at Jerusalem, sent to “take charge” of the church at Antioch and to see to it that things are set in order. Barnabas was a gift of the church in Jerusalem227 to the church in Antioch. He went not so much to rule as to serve, to serve by exercising God-given, God-appointed leadership.
I believe all of the above were at least possible factors in the reason God arranged for a representative from Jerusalem to be sent to Antioch. I am now inclined to think that the church in Jerusalem may have had a very simple reason for sending Barnabas—the situation in Antioch required spiritual leadership, and the church there was “poor” in leaders, while the church in Jerusalem was “rich” in leaders. Just as the church in Antioch will share of its material wealth, giving to minister to the poverty of the saints in Judea (Acts 11:27-30), so the church in Jerusalem will share of its wealth in spiritual leadership, ministering to the poverty of the saints in Antioch. Simply put, the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch because there was a need for the kind of leadership which Barnabas could offer.
But why Barnabas? Why not one of the apostles, as before? Was Barnabas a kind of “second class” apostle, who was sent to Antioch because none of the apostles would go, or because the Jewish believers in Jerusalem did not think these heathen brethren were worthy of full-fledged apostles? Not at all; indeed, quite the contrary. Consider with me some of the reasons Barnabas would have been sent.
(1) Barnabas, unlike most of the apostles, was raised in a culture similar to that of the Antiochians, and he also spoke their language. The apostles, it would seem, were “native Hebrews,” born and raised in the Holy Land and largely unfamiliar with the Greek culture, and one cannot be too sure about their facility in the language of the people. Barnabas could understand and relate to the people of Antioch much more than the apostles, and so he was sent instead of one of them.
(2) The church founded in Antioch was founded by Hellenistic Jews, and it might be an affront to them and to their ministry to send “native Hebrews” there to inspect their work and to take some measure of oversight over it. These magnificent Hellenistic saints had done well. Why offend them by sending the apostles? Barnabas was a man they trusted, and who was, it would seem, highly esteemed by them. He was the right man for the job.
(3) Most importantly, I believe, Barnabas was a man of godly character and of spiritual vitality and power—the best man for the job. Verse 24 is quite clearly an explanation:
For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith (Acts 12:24a).
On the one hand, it is an explanation of the reason Barnabas could rejoice at what he found in Antioch, as described in verse 23, and of the reason he was personally motivated to encourage these saints to “remain true to the Lord.”
But on the other hand, it is also an explanation for why the church in Jerusalem chose to send Barnabas to Antioch. He was a man with the character and the charisma required for the job. He was a man who found great joy in the grace of God, particularly (here) in the lives of others. He was a “good man.” We might be inclined to say, in our vernacular, “He was the best man for the job.” He was a man whose personal life was characterized by faith, and in whom the Spirit of God was controlling and producing spiritual fruit.
In summation, Barnabas is the most highly qualified man, in every area. From the standpoint of his culture and background, he is “the best man for the job.” From the standpoint of his character, he is also “the best man for the job.” And finally, from the standpoint of supernatural spiritual enablement and control, he is “the best man for the job.”
It is only appropriate to point out here that it was the character of Barnabas which Luke emphasized, not his methodology nor his technique. We, in our day and time, have an undue fixation on methods. We are quick to imitate the methodology of those who are successful. When we see men who are successful, we seek to learn the magical methods they used which assure success. We buy books written by successful people to learn their secrets. Luke does not mention the methods of Barnabas, but only his character, because who a man is determines what he does. We need more men of character and fewer men of technique. There will always be a shortage of men who are “good men, full of the Spirit, and of faith.”
Searching for Saul
And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. 25 And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came about that for an entire year they met with the church, and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
Barnabas quickly recognized and rejoiced in the grace of God which he found evident in the lives of the saints at Antioch. He immediately began to encourage them to resolutely remain true to the Lord. Sanctification, like salvation, is the work of God, but it is a work with which the Christian is to cooperate. Barnabas did not envision a passivity on the part of these new Christians. He encouraged them to be diligent in their pursuit of the Christian walk. He recognized the very real danger of some falling away from the Lord,228 especially if they become lax in the disciplines of the spiritual walk.
Barnabas was indeed a good man in many ways. One of the evidences of his goodness and of his spirituality (full of the Holy Spirit) and his faith was his search for Saul, which took him away from Antioch and brought him to Tarsus where Saul was staying. He had been sent there by the saints in Jerusalem in order to spare him from death at the hands of the Hellenistic zealots, among whom Saul was formerly a leader (cf. Acts 9:26-30).
Barnabas was “good” in that he was not selfish. He did not seek to build an empire for himself. He did not fear the ministry of Saul as that which would be competitive to his own interests, because his interest was the growth of the saints at Antioch. I believe that both the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit were instrumental in Barnabas’s decision to look for Saul. I further believe that Barnabas had faith in God’s ability to minister to this body of believers through Saul.
The reason for Barnabas’s search for Saul is given in the last part of verse 24: “And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.” The church was continuing to grow. The number of new Christians was growing beyond Barnabas’s ability to minister to them. The greater the size of the church, so to speak, the larger the number of those who would minister.
The growth of the church at Antioch is mentioned twice in our text (verses 21 and 24). The first time it is mentioned (v. 21), it is due to an emphasis on evangelism. The second time, it is the result of an emphasis on edification and discipleship. These two endeavors are not competitive nor are they mutually exclusive. The more the saints grew in their faith, the more they lived their faith and shared it with others. The church that grows spiritually is equipped to grow numerically as well.
This was no casual trip, but it was a diligent, determined search for Saul—one which would not be terminated until Saul was found and persuaded to go to Antioch.229 Barnabas had a significant influence on Saul’s early life as a believer, and now he would once again come alongside. But it would not be long before it was Paul who would emerge as the leader, and not Barnabas. I am not so sure but what Barnabas, by faith, realized this. And so Barnabas returned with Saul, and for a period of a year they ministered side by side, teaching considerable numbers of new converts.
Luke makes a seemingly incidental statement in verse 26:
… and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
We should know Luke well enough by now to realize that he does not waste his words. This statement has a purpose. I think I am beginning to understand what that purpose may have been.
Names are given to things in order to identify them and to be able to distinguish them from other things. For example, names were given by Adam to each of the different types of animals in the garden. The name “Saul” will soon change to “Paul,” indicating some significant change. God often gave new names to men, indicating a particular future or destiny. Thus, Abram (exalted father) was renamed Abraham (father of a multitude), before he was even a father at all. The significance of Luke’s words here is two-fold. First, it is significant that the disciples needed a name. And second, the name that they were given is of significance as well. Let us consider both of these matters.
Up until this point in time, most of those who were saved were Jews. When they were saved, they remained Jews. They were what we now call “completed Jews,” but they were still Jews. They continued to observe the Jewish holy days and festivals, and to worship in the temple or to gather at a synagogue. Those who were Gentiles were, up until this point in time, proselytes, or God-fearers. They too became a Jew, in a manner of speaking at least.
But now we are dealing with Gentiles, pure pagans. They were not Jewish, and when they came to faith in the Lord Jesus they did not go to the synagogue nor did they associate with the Jews. They were very different and distinct from the Jews, and their faith did not make them Jewish. These people had no identity. What would you call this new group of people, this large body of people, who had been saved, but were not a part of any established religion? They needed a name, a name which depicted their essential uniqueness and which characterized them. The name which that city coined was the name “Christians.” The one thing which characterized every one of these new believers was their faith in Christ, their belonging to Him, and so they were appropriately named Christians.
The point of this naming of the saints is that the people of Antioch recognized that which the church was a bit slower to acknowledge—the fact that the church was distinct from Judaism, that Israel and the church were different. Luke includes this detail as a signal to the fact that the people of Antioch recognized the reality which was taking place: that the church was a new entity, distinct from Judaism, and that the one unifying element was Christ. This pagan city saw what many still have not recognized—the church as a separate entity, a body which is united in and by Christ, which belongs to Him, and which is neither Jewish nor Gentile. How significant this brief statement is.
The Uncircumcised Respond
to the Needs of the Circumcised
27 Now at this time some prophets230 came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus231 stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. 29 And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea.232 30 And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul233 to the elders.
We know from Acts 13:1 that the church at Antioch had prophets of its own. And yet for some reason God sent several prophets to Antioch from Jerusalem. This raises some important questions. The first question is this: “Why would prophets come to Antioch from Jerusalem, if Antioch already had prophets of its own?” I can think of several reasons.
(1) As it was the Spirit who spoke through the prophets, it was the Spirit of God who arranged for this message to the Antiochians to come from prophets from Jerusalem.
(2) Since the church at Jerusalem was older and more mature, the prophets from Jerusalem may have had something to teach the younger prophets of Antioch.234
(3) God wanted to demonstrate the unity of the body of Christ, the church, and to emphasize the interdependence of one part of the body on the rest of the body. We often think of the interdependency within the body of Christ as individual—one member of the body needs the rest of the body, just as the rest of the body needs the one member (cf. 1 Corinthians 12-14). But there is a corporate and geographical sense as well, so that the church in one part of the world depends upon members of the church in another. This is true in financial matters, and in matters of prophecy. God gives to some members of the body in one place so that they may minister to other members of the body in another.
The second question which comes to mind is this: “Why was it necessary to send more than one prophet to Antioch from Jerusalem?” If the purpose of the arrival and ministry of the prophets was to encourage and edify the body, the more prophets the better. Obviously the church needed to know more than the fact that a famine was coming to the whole world. A plurality of prophets was sent, as I understand it, so that the words of Agabus could be confirmed by others with the same gift. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14 make a great deal of sense in this light:
And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment (1 Corinthians 14:29).
I used to suppose that each of the two or three prophets had a different message, and that two or three messages from God was all that the church could bear at one sitting. I am now inclined to think that the two or three prophets all had the same revelation from God, which was confirmed by their independent testimony. The church was then to judge this revelation in the light of God’s Word.
Verse 28 is indeed fascinating:
28 And one of them named Agabus235 stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world.
Agabus, whom we will see again later on in Acts (21:10-14), indicated by divine inspiration that a great famine was coming. That famine was certainly coming. There was no doubt about its coming. This famine was also a world-wide famine. This means that the famine was also coming upon the land and the people of Antioch, and not just on the people of Judea. What a temptation it would have been for the saints at Antioch to use this prophecy for their own gain. If you knew that a famine was coming and you invested your money wisely, you could get rich. When the saints from Antioch gave to the saints in Judea, they did so at their own risk. It is one thing to give to others when you know you will have more than enough for yourself. It is another thing to give when you know that you might lack as well.
We are never told that Agabus (nor any other prophet) told the Antiochian saints what they should do about this prophecy. From what Luke tells us, they seem to have come to the decision to save up and to give to the saints in Judea on their own. It is one thing to be told to do so, and to obey. It is a far better thing to be told that a famine is coming, and then to think through the implications of this, and then to act on these willingly and joyfully. This is what I see happening at Antioch.
I can see someone saying to the others, “Well if there is to be a world-wide famine, there are going to be some people who will be hit especially hard.” Someone else may have chimed in, “Things will really be hard on the saints in Judea. They have already sold many of their possessions, and because of persecution they have lost the rest. These poor saints will really suffer.” And someone else may then have said, “Well then why don’t we plan to help them. We can save up our money, prepare ourselves for the hard times to come, and also have a reserve fund to help the saints in Judea.” I personally think that it happened this way.
Prophets did not always tell the people what they should do in the light of their prophecies. They sometimes left this decision to the saints, guided by the Spirit. For example, when Agabus later foretold Paul’s arrest and suffering, if he went to Jerusalem (Acts 21:10-11), he did not tell Paul what he should do about this. But some of the people came to the wrong conclusion—that Paul should escape this arrest and suffering by avoiding Jerusalem. Paul knew that this was the will of God, and so he rejected this bad advice. The fact that the prophecy of Agabus was correct did not mean that the proper response to it was also indicated by the prophet. But here in Antioch, the prophecy of Agabus brought a magnificent response.
It is my contention that the way in which the church at Antioch ministered to the church at Judea with money provides us with a pattern for ministry of any kind. As we conclude our study of this text, let us compare our ministry with that of this newly-born church, founded in a heathen city, but destined in God’s plan and purpose to be the launching pad for a great missions endeavor.
(1) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was a ministry to fellow saints. The Antiochian saints did not take up a collection for every needy person, though there would surely be many needy people as a result of the famine. The obligation of Christians to minister first to fellow-believers is a matter of biblical priority. We see it in practice here and in principle in Romans 12:16 and again in Galatians 6:10. We are “our brother’s keeper.”
(2) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was a ministry from one church to another church. This generosity and giving was not the act of a few isolated saints; it seems to have been the decision of the entire church. And the giving was done from church to church, not from individual to individual. The gift was sent by the hands of Barnabas and Saul to the elders in Judea.
(3) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was an “international” ministry, to those of another race and from another country. By and large, the saints in Antioch had never met the saints in Judea. They were people of another race, another part of the world, and another culture. More than this, it was a ministry of those who would have been at odds with one another, apart from the grace of God and the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. How often our ministry is to “our folks,” our kind of people, “our own.” This is not good enough. The unity of the body of Christ necessitates ministry which crosses racial, social, political, and economic lines. We know all too little of international ministry today.
(4) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was a demonstration of the unity of the church, the body of Christ, and of its inter-dependence.
(5) The ministry of the saints at Antioch seems to have been a ministry which they voluntarily determined to undertake, not one that was imposed upon them.
(6) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was facilitated by men, in whom these saints had confidence. The contribution of the Antiochians was the result of information provided by prophets from Jerusalem. The contribution was sent by the hands of Barnabas and Saul, delivered to and distributed through the elders of the church in Judea, many of whom the saints in Antioch had never met. Ministry is not an individual effort. It often requires networking with others, others who are “good men, full of the Spirit and of faith,” men whom we can trust and into whose hands we can entrust material wealth and other things of value.
(7) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was their response to a future need. How often in our “Christian culture” churches and organizations have seasonal, very predictable “crises” arisen at which time great sums of money are urgently needed. We have become like Pavlov’s dogs, conditioned to respond only when the church or organization seems to be teetering on the brink of disaster. Not so with the church at Antioch. They knew a crisis was coming, and they prepared for it. Oh, that we were more like the saints at Antioch and did not need a present crisis to motivate us to give and to minister.
Again, I stress we are not only talking about money but about ministry in general. Wise ministry looks ahead and anticipates trouble and problems. It seeks to prepare ourselves and others to be able to minister to needs that will arise in the future. It does not put off thinking, planning, and preparing.
(8) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was one which they anticipated, which they prepared for, and which they completed. The Antiochian saints purposed to give and then prepared to give by saving. How sad that we are so “credit poor” we have very little cash to set aside. And we do not think ahead far enough to save up to be able to give. We, who have more to give than any other people in history, are so deeply in debt we have little to give. And because we do not plan to give or set aside to give, we give all too little. Being in debt is one of the great hindrances to giving.
(9) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was a ministry from their strength to the weakness and need of the Judean saints. The Judean saints were impoverished, while those in Antioch were better off. Thus, the saints at Antioch gave of their wealth to a church that was poor.
I regret to say that while the church in the West is extremely rich, and the Third World church is extremely poor, we in the West are giving very little to the Third World church. There is no excuse.
(10) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was carried out in proportion to the ability of each saint to give. The saints committed to save and to give in accordance with what God had given them. Christians are only called upon to minister in accordance with the grace manifested to them (cf. Romans 12:6-8; 2 Corinthians 8:11-12).
(11) The ministry of the saints at Antioch was, to some degree, an opportunity to reciprocate for the ministry of the saints in Jerusalem to them. If the saints in the church of Judea and Jerusalem ministered to the church at Antioch out of their wealth of gifted men (like Barnabas and the prophets who went down to Antioch), the saints of the church at Antioch reciprocated from their monetary wealth, ministering to the saints of Judea in their poverty. In this there is an evident reciprocation.
(12) The ministry of the Jerusalem saints to Antioch (through Barnabas and the prophets) and the ministry of the Antiochian saints to those in Jerusalem, bound these two churches together in love and unity. There would surely have been the tendency for friction and dissension between these two churches, or at least between certain individuals in these churches, but God providentially arranged for a demonstration of love that would set aside many of the barriers to their experiencing of the unity which comes through Christ.
(13) The ministry of the saints in Antioch to the saints in Judea is one which remarkably parallels the practice of the Macedonian church, as described by Paul in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. The practice of the Macedonian church and the principles which Paul outlined in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 are illustrated by the practice of the church at Antioch. This church, saved by God’s grace and led by His Spirit, did that which Paul would teach others, perhaps even before it was taught to do so.
How gracious God was to bring these two churches—so diverse, so different, so easily inclined to drift apart and to contend with each other—together. He first brought them together by salvation in Christ, and then He brought them together through ministry, one to another. The saints in Jerusalem ministered through their gifted men, and the saints in Antioch ministered through their money. What a wonderful union God hath wrought here. May God manifest this same unity among us in our church and between our church and other churches as well.
205 Note the role of prophets in Acts. In chapter 11, prophets from Jerusalem come down to Antioch. In 15:27, 31-32, Judas and Silas brought encouraging words to the church at Antioch. And, in 21:9-11, Agabus came down to Caesarea, where Paul was, to foretell his arrest and bondage, which would take place when he went to Jerusalem. It is interesting, in this last instance, to note that Philip’s four daughters were prophetesses, and yet God used Agabus to give Paul this revelation.
206 The first (Greek) words of verse 19 are identical with those in Acts 8:4.
207 “This O. T. phrase (Ex. 9:3; Isa. 59:1) is used by Luke (1:66; Acts 4:28, 30; 13:11). It was proof of God’s approval of their course in preaching the Lord Jesus to Greeks.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 157.
208 “The usual expression for Gentiles turning to the true God (14:15; 15:3, 19; 26:18, 20; 1 Thess. 1:9).” A. T. Robertson, III, p. 157.
209 Cyprus is the island in the Mediterranean Sea, to the west of Israel. Cyrene is a port city of North Africa, also on the Mediterranean. While Cyprus and Cyrene were not close to one another in space, they probably had much contact and much in common.
210 Carter and Earle explain the meaning of the term rendered “preach” this way:
“The verb euangelizo (preach) is a favorite with Luke. He uses it ten times in his Gospel and fifteen times in Acts--about half the total number of times in the New Testament. It occurs only once in the other Gospels (Matt. 11:5). The literal meaning is ‘announce glad tidings or good news.’ It is especially appropriate as a missionary word to describe the preaching of those who carried the gospel to new regions.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 111.
211 I assume this group to be quite small, a small group of daring saints, and I would suspect that some, if not all, of them are named in Acts 13:1.
212 Note this same phrase, employed by Paul, in the blinding of the Jewish false prophet, Elymas (or Bar-Jesus), in Acts 13:11. It is interesting to consider the options as to how the “hand of the Lord was upon him”? Did God purpose to save this man too, just like Saul? Or is this merely an expression indicating that what was to happen was the working of God, through His power, and not of some greater magic performed by Paul.
213 The context of this text in Acts 20 is very significant. Paul is addressing the elders of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17), giving them his final words (vss. 36-38). Here, Paul warned these leaders that some from among them would rise up, speaking perverse things, so as to attract their own following (v. 30). And yet, in the midst of this danger, and knowing the he would not see these people again, Paul was confident in God’s keeping and care through “the word of His grace” (v. 32).
214 Jesus gave them the basis for this confidence in such passages as John 16 and 17.
215 If there is a danger (to which John here speaks) of being overly dependent upon men’s interpretation of God’s Word so that one does not get into the Word for himself, there is the opposite and equally dangerous error of being so independent and autonomous in your study of the Word that you refuse to learn from others, and you begin to filter the Scriptures through the dangerous grid of your own thinking, sinful desires, and misconceptions. It is to this danger that Peter spoke in his second epistle, warning men against “private interpretations” (2 Peter 1:20-21). The ultimate issue is not, “What does the Bible mean to me, but what does the Bible mean?” The Bible is written because our minds (as also our emotions and our will) have been adversely affected by sin. It is the Word of God which is to transform our minds, rather than our minds which are to transform God’s Word (cf. Romans 12:2).
216 We have a way of focusing on the Bereans (Acts 17:10-12) as those who were model saints. I would like to propose that these “magnificent missionaries” of Acts 11 are to be commended even above the Bereans. The Bereans went so far as to test the teaching of the apostle Paul against the Old Testament text. The ones who preached Christ to the Antiochian Gentiles went beyond their teachers, the apostles, both in their understanding and in their practice of the Word of God.
217 F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 224.
218 F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, pp. 224-225.
219 Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 156.
220 Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, p. 155.
221 Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 157.
222 “Something of the esteem in which Barnabas was held by the author of the Book of Acts is indicated by the fact that he is mentioned in Acts no less than twenty-five different times, beside five references to him by Paul outside Acts.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 158.
Note the shift which is evident in the leadership of the church in Jerusalem as the Book of Acts develops: Peter and John sent by the apostles--Acts 8:14; Apostles and brethren received word of Peter’s actions 11:1; The church (“they”) sent Barnabas--apostles not mentioned 11:22; Money sent to the “elders”--Acts 11:30; By Jerusalem Council it is Apostles and elders, and James seems to be taking the lead--Acts 15; Brethren decided to send Paul and Barnabas 15:2; Received by church, apostles, and elders 15:4; James has the final word--15:13ff;.Decision reached & communicated by apostles & elders 15:22ff.
223 Compare Acts 13:43.
224 “Anazeteo is a common verb since Plato, but in the N. T. only here and Luke 2:44-45, to seek upon and down (ana), back and forth, to hunt up, to make a thorough search till success comes.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 159.
“Moulton and Milligan state that in the papyri anazeteo (seek) ‘is specially used of searching for human beings, with an implication of difficulty, as in the NT passages.’” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 159.
225 “Until now the followers of Christ were known by such designations as disciples, believers, brethren, saints, the people of the Way (or this Way), the church of God, Galileans, or Nazarenes (Acts 24:5).” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 160.
226 The term, “universal church,” refers to the whole body of Christ, those who have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation, throughout the history of the church. This includes those both “asleep” (dead) and alive in Christ. The “local church” is a specific body of believers, in a given place and time, which has Christ as its Head, and which has leaders who have been appointed by the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 20:28).
227 Notice that there is a growing shift in leadership in the church at Jerusalem. Initially, in Acts 8, it is the apostles where heard of the salvation of the Samaritans, and who decided to send Peter and John to the city of Samaria. In our passage, it is the church who hears of the salvation of the Gentiles at Antioch, and who determines to send Barnabas.
228 I do not mean that these who “fall away” lose their salvation, but that they neglect it, and thus cease to grow in the fear and knowledge of the Lord.
229 The term which is used here, rendered “to look for” is found elsewhere only in Luke chapter 2 (verses 44 and 45), referring to the diligent search for the missing Jesus by His parents.
230 There are a number of prophets mentioned in the Book of Acts: Agabus 11:27-28; 21:10; Several 13:1; Judas and Silas--14:4; 15:32; Daughters of Philip--21:9.
231 Cf. Acts 21:10ff., where Agabus foretold Paul’s suffering, as a result of his going to Jerusalem.
232 “We know that Judaea did in fact suffer severely from a famine at some point between A.D. 45 and 48. At that time Helena, queen-mother of Adiabene, a Jewish proselyte, bought grain in Egypt and figs in Cyprus and had them taken to Jerusalem for distribution, while her son King Izates sent a large sum of money to the authorities in Jerusalem to be used for famine relief. The church of Antioch similarly organized a relief fund for the mother-church. The various members of the church appear to have allocated a fixed sum out of their income or property as a contribution to this fund, much as Paul was to advise the Corinthian Christians to do when he was organizing a later relief fund for Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-4).” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), pp. 230-231.
233 This is the second occasion in Luke’s record on which Paul visited Jerusalem after his conversion (the first being briefly described in 9:26-30). He himself records two visits which he paid to Jerusalem; the possibility arises that the famine-relief visit of Acts 11:30 is identical with that described in Gal. 2:1-10, when he went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas in the fourteenth year after his conversion (which is the most probable interpretation of Gal. 2:1). More common, however, is the identification of the visit of Gal. 2:1-10 with that of Acts 15; this raises problems which will be considered later. F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 231.
234 This leads us into a very involved question as to what the gift of prophecy was (and is), but suffice it to say that, in my opinion, it was more than simply speaking direct quotes from God about future events. It may have had an element of preaching involved as well. Nevertheless, the gift of prophecy, like the other spiritual gifts, needs to be developed. It does not instantly emerge in full bloom. There was the “school of the prophets” in the Old Testament, which helped in the development of prophets (cf. 2 Kings 2 & 5). For an exploration of the nature of the New Testament gift of prophecy, I recommend that you read The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, by Wayne Gruden (Crossway Books, 1988).
235 Cf. Acts 21:10ff., where Agabus foretold Paul’s suffering, as a result of his going to Jerusalem.