Some of my favorite memories in my years of ministry have been the opportunities I have had to be with Christians in more remote places where the gospel is not wide-spread. Several times I have mentioned the very great blessing of being with a church in France just four years ago – a congregation of people with whom my college son Jesse associated during his studies there. What a wonderful group of highly committed people! Our church we’ve partnered to help plant in Kazakhstan is another. Just this week a letter has come from the pastor there with pictures of the growth taking place in a less-than-ideal environment. Some years ago I was blessed to be with a group of Iranian Christians in England – a group very similar to that which our friends the Kurtykas are seeing incredible growth in Scotland.
There is simply something very refreshing about a new and exciting work of God. And that is what we encounter in our passages today that talk about the church in Antioch of Syria – a location about 300 miles north of Jerusalem.
Over the years of the Christian church, from Jerusalem down to today in places like China, persecution has served to have the opposite effect of its intent. In the desire to eradicate the presence of the gospel message and associated believers, the hostilities and subsequent sufferings rather have become the impetus for the spread and expanse of the message. It is like trying to stomp out a fire with your feet, only to have that action actually spread sparks in multiple directions that enflame new fires. The early Christian writer Tertullian wrote in his most famous work “Apologeticus” (about A.D. 197) said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
The persecution that broke out in Jerusalem upon the death of Stephen was an incident having the effect of spreading the gospel message in varied directions, including to Antioch – the third largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria.
Acts 11:19 – Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
The authoritative center of the belief in Jesus as Messiah and Savior was still in Jerusalem. As we’ve written already in this series, it was still not very widely understood that this new belief system was distinct from Judaism. But with numbers of Gentiles coming to trust in Christ now in Antioch, it began to be clearer that this was an entirely new and more intentionally expansive work of God.
Barnabas was a man from Cyprus who was a Levite, and he was highly regarded in Jerusalem circles; so he was sent to ascertain what was really happening in Antioch. Seeing the Gentiles coming to Christ, Barnabas knew just the person who would be able to make this work flourish – Paul/Saul. Knowing he was in Tarsus, Barnabas went looking for him to bring to Antioch, which he did. Certainly Barnabas had previously also known from earlier association with Paul that a special ministry to Gentiles was a part of Saul’s understanding of his life’s calling.
Acts 11:27 – During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Acts 12:25 – When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.
13:1-3 – Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
Antioch was a sort of church that I would like to see TSF increasingly come to be like. There existed a plethora of gifted leaders with varied skills, but not only this, they were a very varied group ethnically and in terms of background. It was a special place, and it was from this place that God began the first organized mission work to expand the gospel message.
Especially selected for this new work were Paul and Barnabas. The very best leaders in the church were those who were sent to go out to new places with the message of the cross. We can be, and in fact we already really are like the church at Antioch. Imagine what our congregation would be like if the six of our church families who serve in missions work in other places of the world were instead home here with us! That would amazingly enriching, but their calling and work in other places is their (and our) priority. What a privilege to be a part of this work!
The church of Jesus Christ is the greatest thing on planet Earth. What a blessing to be a part of it! Let’s make TSF a special place for the work of the gospel, just as Antioch was in the first century!