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Lesson 28: The Church God Blesses (Acts 11:19-30)

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We live in a day when many evangelical churches seek to build their attendance through gimmicks and entertainment. Years ago, when this trend toward church growth was beginning to take hold, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones told a group at Westminster Chapel in London, where he was pastor, that he knew a way to insure that every seat would be filled the following Sunday. To understand this story, you need to know that Dr. Lloyd-Jones was a very proper Welshman who always wore a suit. In his biography, there is a picture of him at the beach with his little daughter, and he is wearing a suit as he sits on the sand! I think he was born wearing a suit!

Anyway, the people in his church said, “Tell us, tell us,” and “Let’s do it!” “It’s very simple,” he said. “Put a notice in the Saturday edition of The [London] Times that I shall appear in the pulpit the next day wearing a bathing suit!” After a shocked silence on the part of the group, Dr. Lloyd-Jones went on to talk about the biblical basis for proper worship, as opposed to the approach of using entertainment to entice people to attend church (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, by Iain Murray [Banner of Truth], 2:112).

Pastors today flock to seminars that tell them how to market the church in today’s world. They learn how to make the church user-friendly for outsiders. They are taught how to shorten the sermon and make it non-threatening to the unchurched, while using drama and multi-media to get the message across. And, the methods “work”! Some of the largest evangelical churches in America use these methods and teach them to thousands of pastors who see dramatic results.

In our text, we see an example of impressive church growth. From a small group of persecuted refugees, the church in Antioch saw large numbers of people come to Christ. In fact, three times Luke underscores the large numbers (11:21, 24, 26). But the reason this church experienced such remarkable growth was not that the leaders employed the latest church growth principles. They didn’t study the demographics of Antioch and come up with a strategy to market the church to the masses. Rather, the reason for the growth was simple: “The hand of the Lord was with them” (11:21). This was a church that God was blessing. That should be our aim, that the hand of the Lord would be with us.

To be a church that God blesses, we should learn from the church of Antioch.

Employing the principles that this church followed will not necessarily result in numerical growth, since God does not always grant numerical growth along with His blessing. And, we would be mistaken to conclude that God is blessing every growing church, since as I’ve said, churches can grow by using marketing techniques. But we would certainly hinder God’s blessing if we knowingly violated the principles embodied in this church. If we want the hand of the Lord to be with us, then we would do well to study and follow the example of this church at Antioch. There are seven principles I want to point out:

1. God blesses a church where every member is a minister.

The founding and prospering of the church at Antioch was arguably one of the most significant events in the history of Western civilization. It led to the distinctiveness of the Christian church apart from the Jewish synagogue, in that it blended together in one body both Jews and Gentiles. It was here that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. From Antioch, the church launched the first mission to Europe. You and I conceivably would not be Christians today had it not been for God’s blessing on this church.

One remarkable feature of this church was how it started. It was not founded by apostles or pastors or trained missionaries. Rather, some unnamed men who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen came to Antioch and began talking, not just to the Jews, but to the Greeks (Gentiles), telling the good news about the Lord Jesus (11:20). The Greek word for “speak” (11:19, 20) is the word for normal conversation. The implication is that these men didn’t preach as orators in the marketplace. Rather, in their everyday contacts, they told others about Jesus Christ. There is reason to believe that Luke himself was a native of Antioch. Perhaps as a doctor, he was treating a man who told him about Jesus Christ, leading to his conversion.

But surely Luke either knew or easily could have found out the names of these evangelists. He mentions where they were from. Yet they remain unnamed, I believe, for a reason. If they had been named, we would hold them up as missionary heroes, and view them as men a notch above the average church member. We would think that what they did was something that we could never do. But their remaining unnamed tells us that they were common men who had met the Lord Jesus and who wanted others to know Him, too. We all can do what they did.

Note also that even when Barnabas and Saul later rose to positions of leadership through their teaching ministry, this church did not depend on them in order to function and grow. They could send both of them off on a relief mission to Jerusalem, which would have taken at least a couple of months, and keep operating. Later, when the Holy Spirit set apart Barnabas and Saul for the first missionary journey, the church could send off these two key leaders and keep right on rolling. This was because this church knew the principle of the body, that God has gifted every member and each one is expected to exercise his or her gift in ministry.

If the spreading of the gospel or the functioning of the church depends on the labors of full-time missionaries or pastors, ministry will be severely limited. But if every person who has trusted in Christ as Savior and Lord feels the obligation of serving Him and of telling others the good news about Him, the gospel will spread and the church will be built up. Every Christian should sense his or her responsibility to serve Christ and bear witness of Him.

2. God blesses a church where the gospel is proclaimed as the power of God to save sinners.

To understand our text, you need to know something about Antioch. It was located 300 miles north of Jerusalem and was the third largest city in the Roman empire, behind Rome and Alexandria, having more than 500,000 residents. It was a center for commerce and a crossroads for travel and trade between Europe and the Orient. This made the city a melting pot of various races, including the Romans, the local Syrians, Jews, and others.

The city was proverbial for sexual immorality. Five miles outside of town was the grove of Daphne, where worshipers of Artemis and Apollo pursued their religion of pleasure with temple prostitutes. The Roman satirist Juvenal criticized the moral pollution of Rome by saying that the sewage of the Orontes (a river flowing through Antioch) had for too long been discharged into the Tiber (flowing through Rome). He “meant that Antioch was so corrupt that it was impacting Rome, more than 1,300 miles away” (Stanley Toussaint, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], 2:383).

It is significant that when God picked a city that would become the center for missionary endeavor, He picked a cosmopolitan, morally corrupt city like Antioch. In this secular, pagan environment, common Christians began telling the simple gospel message that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, that whoever believes in Him receives eternal life and forgiveness as God’s free gift. The same gospel that is the power of God for salvation to the Jews proved to be the power of God for salvation to these pagan Gentiles as well.

The end of verse 20 literally reads, “telling [or preaching] the good news [of] the Lord Jesus.” But in telling the good news, they didn’t dodge the hard matters of sin and repentance, since we read that a large number who believed turned to the Lord. This means that these former pagans gave up their idols, their sexual immorality, their lying, and their corrupt business practices when they put their trust in Jesus as Lord. When Barnabas came, he witnessed the grace of God (11:23). You can’t see God’s grace, but you can see the effects of it in a person’s life. He could see that God had changed these people. Faith in the good news about Jesus as Savior cannot be divorced from repentance from sin.

One remarkable proof that the gospel is from God is that wherever it goes, it has the same powerful effect. The message does not need to be changed when it is taken to a tribe of primitive headhunters. It does not need to be intellectualized when it is taken to a sophisticated university crowd. Whatever their culture or background, people are all sinners who need to know how to be reconciled to God before they face Him in judgment. If we will tell the simple gospel message to the people we come into contact with, God will bless us with conversions.

3. God blesses a church where His grace, not legalism, permeates the body.

Not only I, but also many commentators, sense that there was a note of concern behind the Jerusalem church’s sending Barnabas to Antioch. Word had gotten back to Jerusalem, “Have you heard what’s going on in Antioch?” “No, what?” “A bunch of laymen are sharing Christ with the pagans, and they’re all meeting together, Jews and Gentiles, as one church!” Alarms went off! Red lights started flashing! It was one thing when the God-fearing Gentile, Cornelius, had become a Christian through the preaching of the leading apostle, Peter. That stretched the limit. But when raw pagans from a notoriously immoral place like Antioch started coming into the church through the witness of a bunch of laymen, it was time for the mother church to check things out! So they sent Barnabas. Some of the circumcision crowd might have said, “Make sure that Barnabas gets that Antioch situation under control!”

Note what Barnabas saw and how he responded: He saw the grace of God and he rejoiced (11:23). If the apostles had sent a legalistic member of the circumcision party, he might have seen something else and had a very different response. He would have seen Jews and Gentiles eating together (Gal. 2:12), not keeping the ceremonial laws. Instead of rejoicing, he would have been horrified.

But Barnabas was a man who lived by God’s grace, and so he saw the grace of God and rejoiced. No doubt he also saw a lot of imperfection in these new converts. New believers do not drop all of their pagan baggage the day they get saved. A church made up of people from such different backgrounds as those in Antioch was bound to have some irritations and conflicts. But rather than focusing on the imperfections and problems, Barnabas focused on God’s grace in saving these people. Instead of slapping a bunch of Jewish rules on them, he rejoiced at what God was doing, and then began to encourage them to remain true to the Lord.

What do you see when you see a new convert? Let me describe him: He’s 20 years-old, he wears a baseball cap on backwards, a T-shirt, and jeans to church. He has a tattoo and an earring. But here he is in church, lifting his hands in praise to God as he sings of God’s salvation. Do you see a young man who doesn’t look like what you think a Christian young person should look like, and grumble in your heart? Or, do you see the grace of God who has saved that young man, and rejoice?

Howard Hendricks tells of the time he brought his neighbors, whom he was trying to reach with the gospel, to the Dallas Seminary Founder’s Banquet. The Founder’s Banquet is a major fund-raising event. The seminary wants their supporters to come and see the kind of quality young leaders that Dallas is producing. When Hendricks got there with his neighbors, he discovered that his table was front and center. When they dimmed the lights, the spotlight on the stage shined right over their table. His neighbor’s cigarette smoke curled up through the light for everyone in the hotel ballroom to see. Hendricks says that he could almost hear some dear old supporter in the back grumbling, “That’s how liberalism gets started in the seminary!”

God’s grace teaches us to accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God (Rom. 15:7). We need to treat others as God has graciously treated us.

4. God blesses a church where grace is the motivation to remain true to the Lord.

God’s grace also teaches us to deny worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age (Titus 2:12). Barnabas could see that these new believers needed to grow in their faith. Every pastor knows that it’s one thing to make a profession of faith, but it’s another thing to persevere and grow in holiness when temptations and trials hit, as surely they will. God’s grace in Christ is what motivates us to live holy lives (Gal. 2:20).

Genuine conversion is a matter of the heart. Thus Barnabas, true to his name (“Son of Encouragement”) began to encourage these new Christians with purpose of heart to remain true to the Lord (lit., 11:23). Steadfastness in the Christian life is not an accident, but a matter of resolute purpose. I can hear Barnabas preaching to these new believers, “Because God has been gracious in saving us, we must resolve in our hearts to follow Him and cling to Him no matter what kinds of hardships we encounter. We must purpose to deny ourselves and follow the Lord Jesus. Abide in Him! He is the all-sufficient One who can meet your every need. He has done the greatest thing by loving you and giving Himself for you on the cross. He will not abandon or forsake you, even if He calls you to go through persecution or even martyrdom. Let His grace motivate you to resolve in your heart to follow Him and walk with Him no matter what!”

Thus the church that God blesses is made up of members who see themselves as ministers of Christ. They proclaim the gospel as the power of God to save sinners from every kind of background. Grace, not legalism, permeates this church, and grace is the motivation to go on in holiness with the Lord.

5. God blesses a church where godly leaders set the example of holiness and faith.

Luke states that Barnabas “was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (11:24). I hope to explore Barnabas’ character more next week, so I will be brief here. But note that he was a man of integrity. He practiced what he preached. Those who knew him well said, “He is a good man.” The reason he was a good man was that he was full of the Holy Spirit and full of faith in the living God.

Barnabas’ heart was to seek the glory of God through the building up of His church, not to seek a name for himself. At some point, he began to realize that the work in Antioch was more than he could handle. Maybe he realized that he did not have all the gifts that were needed to see this church prosper. So he left Antioch and traveled the 100 miles to Tarsus to search for Saul. Barnabas was not threatened to bring this gifted man back to Antioch to share in the work with him. Eventually, he took a back seat to Paul’s leadership in their missionary endeavors.

God will not bless a church in the true sense of the word if the leaders are not setting a godly example. I say, “in the true sense” because I know of many large, seemingly thriving churches where it has come out that the pastor was not living a holy life. So we need to be careful not to mistake a large church with God’s true blessing. I hope you pray for all of our pastoral staff here, that we will walk in holiness with the Lord Jesus every day.

6. God blesses a church where godly leaders are devoted to teaching God’s Word.

Barnabas and Saul met with the church for an entire year and taught considerable numbers (11:26). Then we read, “and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” Probably this was a nickname that the pagans in town gave them. It meant, “Christ-men.” It’s only used in the Bible three times: here; in Acts 26:28, where Agrippa chides Paul for trying to make him a Christian; and, in 1 Peter 4:16, where Peter urges his readers not to be ashamed if they suffer as Christians.

F. F. Bruce imagines a group of two or three of the unofficial missionaries in the streets of Antioch, with a small group gathered around them, listening to the gospel. Someone watching asks another bystander, “Who are these people?” The other answers, “O, these are the people who are always talking about Christos, the Christ-people, the Christians” (The Book of Acts [Eerdmans], p. 241). The nickname stuck, just as Jesus people or Jesus freaks was the description that came out of the Jesus movement in the 1970’s. While it may have been meant as a term of derision, it really was a supreme compliment for the pagans to notice that these men were “Christ-men.”

It is implied that the reason people could identify these men as Christians was that they lived in accordance with Barnabas’ and Saul’s teaching of God’s Word. The point of all Bible teaching should be to change the way we think, our attitudes, the way we talk, and the way we act, beginning at home and extending into the world. Others should recognize that we are like Jesus Christ because we obey His Word. Finally,

7. God blesses a church where the members are devoted to spontaneous, generous giving.

The apostles and prophets were the foundation of the New Testament church (Eph. 2:20). Once the foundation was laid and the canon of Scripture was complete, those gifts passed off the scene. The function of a prophet was to edify, exhort, and console from God’s Word (1 Cor. 14:3), and also to receive direct revelation from God to impart His message to the church. A group of prophets came to Antioch, and one of them, Agabus, predicted a coming famine. The church’s response was spontaneously to give toward the relief of the believers living in Judea, and to send the gift with Barnabas and Saul. Luke shows that they didn’t just come up with this great idea; they actually did it (11:30), without any pressure or organizing from the leaders.

God will bless a church that sees a brother or sister in need and quietly, spontaneously, without pressure, gives to meet that need. The famine easily could have hit Antioch as well as Judea. The church members in Antioch could have said, “We need to look out for our own needs; let the Jewish brethren take care of themselves.” But they trusted God and gave to meet the needs of others. God will pour out His blessing on a generous church.

Conclusion

So Antioch is set before us as an example. It was a church founded by simple believers who knew that God has called every Christian to serve Him. They proclaimed the gospel as the power of God for salvation to every one who believes. They operated by God’s grace, not by legalism. They saw grace as the motivation to go on with the Lord. Their leaders set the example and taught them from God’s Word. They were generous givers, trusting God to meet their needs. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.

I covet that for our church! I want to be a part of a church, like Antioch, where growth clearly comes from the Lord and where, also like Antioch, we become a center for worldwide impact for Jesus Christ. Then the glory won’t go to church growth principles or to any man, but to the Lord of the church, who strongly supports those whose hearts are completely His (2 Chron. 16:9).

Discussion Questions

  1. Why (biblically) is evangelism every member’s responsibility? What implications does this have for our church?
  2. To what extent should church leaders exercise control over various ministries in the church? Support with Scripture.
  3. What is the difference between grace and licentiousness? When do we accept an immature Christian and when do we confront?
  4. What is our responsibility in terms of giving to help the poor? How far abroad do we apply this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Evangelism, Finance, Grace, Soteriology (Salvation)