In our last study we saw Peter called on the carpet by the Christian leadership in Jerusalem because he had eaten with Gentiles. Remember what we have seen about the Jew/Gentile conflict: No Jew would think of going into a Gentile home, much less eating with Gentiles, for fear of contracting ceremonial defilement.
The Jews and Gentiles despised each other. For example: A basic part of Judaism in the days of the New Testament was an oath that promised that one would never help a Gentile under any circumstances, such as giving directions if they were asked. But it went even as far as refusing to help a Gentile woman when she was giving birth, because the result would only be bringing another Gentile into the world.
In our last several studies we have seen that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has broken through these racial barriers, and Jew and Gentile were getting saved and becoming part of the body of Christ. When Peter explained to the leadership in Jerusalem what God had done in the salvation of the Gentiles, they glorified God in the Gentile salvation.
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. (Acts 11:19 NASB)
With this verse we leave Peter and pick up the thread from Acts 8:1. Luke takes us back in time to the persecution which arose on account of Stephen, a persecution conducted primarily by Saul. In between, we have had Philip's evangelistic labors; the conversion of Saul, who is to be the apostle to the Gentiles; and Peter's activities, culminating in his opening in a formal way the door of faith to the Gentiles.
We saw in chapter 8 that when Stephen was martyred, Christians began leaving Jerusalem under persecution, especially those who had come from other places they could go back to. Brand new Christians were being dispersed across the map. They went to Samaria and Caesarea on the coast. Now in chapter 11 we observe that they went farther north to Phoenicia and Antioch, and they went to the Island of Cyprus.
They went first to Phoenicia, which was a country between Galilee and Syria along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, including Tyre, Sidon. It is often mentioned as a part of Syria.
Then from Phoenician ports they traveled across the sea to the Island of Cyprus.
Cyprus is a large island northwest of Israel and about 170 miles by ship just southwest of Antioch. Barnabas was born on this island.
They eventually came to the great city of Syrian Antioch. 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.
Antioch was also a place of culture. And sex was worshiped there. About five miles outside the city was the Temple of Daphne, where sex was enthroned and worshiped through priestesses who were really religious prostitutes.
It was from this pagan town that the Church launched its major missionary offensives to the uttermost parts of the earth. But notice that this verse says that they spoke the word to no one except Jews alone. The idea here is that as they traveled from place to place making contacts, they would be talking to men and women about Jesus. But they only at this stage took the message to Jews, for the outreach to the Gentiles had not even been considered. For about the first ten years the Church was pretty much strictly Jewish, and when they preached they preached to Jews only.
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. (Acts 11:20 NASB)
Hearing news of what had happened with Cornelius (that is why this is described at this point) some believers from Cyprus and Cyrene begin to target the God-fearing Greeks in the synagogues and proclaim to them that Jesus is LORD.
Because Luke sees Peter as the instigator of the witness to the Gentiles (15:7, referring to 10:1-11:18), and the church sends Barnabas, and not the apostles, to investigate the Gentile mission at Antioch, it appears that this witness to Gentiles at Antioch follows Peter's preaching to Cornelius.
This verse documents another significant advance in the mission of the Church: for the first time Luke recorded Jews aggressively evangelizing non-Jews. The Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius, who were both Gentiles, had taken the initiative in reaching out to Jews and had obtained salvation. Now believing Jews were taking the initiative in reaching out to Gentiles with the Gospel.
We note that the message that these believers proclaimed was of "Jesus the LORD" not of the Messiah Jesus, which would have meant less to Gentiles.
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. 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.
And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:21 NASB)
What is the theological term for the phrase "The hand of the Lord"? This is an anthropomorphism. An anthropomorphism is a humanization of God, it is describing the parts of a man in reference to God to help us understand. God does not have hands--He is a Spirit. "The hand of the Lord" is a good First Testament phrase (Ezra 9.7; Is 66.14; compare Luke 1.66) and may simply indicate God's mighty power at work in men's hearts.
In this secular, pagan environment, common Christians began telling the simple Gospel message that 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.
Our text says that "A large number believed." Carter, in his commentary on Acts, writes this:
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. [Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 157.]
And so for the first time we have news of a church where the Greek Christians probably outnumbered the Jewish Christians and took part with them on equal footing.
And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. (Acts 11:22 NASB)
News of what had happened came back to the ears of the church in Jerusalem. We can compare this with 11:1, but what a different response we now see. 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.
The church that was in Jerusalem was the original, the mother Church of Christianity. They hear reports of what is happening and immediately show their love for the church in Antioch by sending Barnabas to them to assist in the work and in order to maintain unity and fellowship between the churches of Antioch and Jerusalem.
We first encountered Barnabas in Acts 4:36-37, where we were told that his given name was Joseph, and that he was from the island of Cyprus and the tribe of Levi. On meeting him, we discovered that he was a generous man and someone whose integrity was unquestioned. Chapter 9 brought him into the account once again in an important role. Saul, the great persecutor of the church in Jerusalem, had been converted on the way to Damascus, and then he had spent three years in Damascus and in the wilderness, finding his way as a young Christian. But he was remembered very well in Jerusalem as one who "breathed threats and murder," who was responsible for the imprisonment and destruction of good Christian people. So when he returned to Jerusalem, the church didn't want anything to do with him. No one was buying the idea that someone like Saul the Pharisee could become Saul the brother in Christ--except for Barnabas. He recognized that Saul was, in fact, a follower of Jesus. Barnabas, unlike most of the apostles, was raised in a culture similar to that of the Antiochians, and he also spoke their language. He was a man who would be satisfactory to both parties and would best understand the situation.
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; (Acts 11:23 NASB)
The word "encourage" is from the Greek word paraklesis. It is a broad word. It's a compound word from para, meaning: "alongside," and "kaleo," the verb which means: "to call." Parakletos is: "one called alongside of." The Holy Spirit is called the "Helper," which is from the word parakletos.
Paraklesis is often interpreted to mean: "comforting", and the Greek word is quite capable of holding this meaning. However, as used here, it more likely means: "a strengthening." Barnabas made the 300 mile journey from Jerusalem to Antioch, a grueling journey in those days, in order to try to strengthen these young believers.
How do you remain true to the Lord? The fundamental way to remain true to Christ is to spend time in His Word. When Barnabas told the people to "remain true" to the Lord, he was saying, "Listen to what God says through the First Testament and the words of the apostles." That is what they needed to do. They did not need more beyond Him; they needed to know more of Him. So Barnabas exhorted them to work intelligently at learning about Jesus.
Commentating on this verse, a preacher writes, "Salvation is God's gift, but remaining saved takes effort." You need to praise God that you are not part of his congregation. We are saved by grace; kept by grace; salvation is all of grace:
For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19 NASB)
I am righteous before God, not because of my efforts, but because of Jesus' efforts for me.
for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. (Acts 11:24 NASB)
Luke pays Barnabas the highest compliment he pays anybody about whom he writes in the book of Acts when he applies the adjective "good" to him. There is more than one Greek word that is translated "good" in English. This is the one that means beautiful. It doesn't mean just being good in a technical sense, or meeting a standard. It doesn't even mean being pure. This word means being winsome, attractive.
Luke says, "Considerable numbers were brought to the Lord," so many in fact that Barnabus sets out to find Saul:
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. (Acts 11:25-26 NASB)
Barnabas' love for the church is so great that he seeks out Saul; he leaves Antioch and travels 100 miles to Tarsus to search for Saul. Several years had passed since the believers in Jerusalem asked Saul to leave because of the trouble he was stirring up (Acts 9:29-31). They sent him to Tarsus in Cilicia (Southeast Asia Minor). While he was there, he went all over Cilicia starting churches (Acts 15:41). According to 2 Corinthians 11:24-28, he had been beaten mercilessly. Many of the things listed in those verses may have occurred in the years we don't know about.
Barnabas goes to get Saul to come and assist him in building up the newborn and growing church in the faith, and together they gather with the church and for a whole year teach the people. Saul, in my opinion was the greatest Bible teacher and the most profound Christian thinker of all time, although he had not attained that yet.
These new believers, who were Greek, may not have understood the First Testament, so much teaching was required, and who better than Saul. The calling of every church is to teach and make disciples, not to entertain, placate, or create recreation for the saints. Teaching is the goal and design of the Church.
Antioch, we'll see increasingly, was becoming the second great city of Christian learning and missions in the New Testament era, the first being Jerusalem. The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. Who first called them Christians? Some think they assumed it; others, that the inhabitants of Antioch gave it to them; and others, that it was given by Saul and Barnabas. Our text really isn't clear.
The ending "ian" meant: "the party of." A Christ-ian was "of the party of Jesus." "Christians" is sort of like saying "Jesus-ites," or "Jesus People," those of the group associated with Jesus Christ. This is significant because they were no longer being seen as semi-Jews who followed the Jewish Messiah. They were being seen as a distinctive people. This had its dangers. Once Christianity was seen as separate from Judaism, it would lose the favored status of being a Licit Religion, which Judaism enjoyed, and would become liable to persecution.
God did not give the new name "Christian" at Pentecost, or during the time the Church was evangelizing among Jews only. But now Peter has ushered Gentiles into the Kingdom and God. And now Jews and Gentiles who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ are called Christians.
Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. (Acts 11:27 NASB)
"At this time"--following the Gentiles coming to Christ in great numbers--the Jerusalem church sends prophets to Antioch to fulfil a ministry in the large and growing church, one of whom predicts a great coming famine:
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. (Acts 11:28 NASB)
Let's pause here for a moment and look at the subject of prophets. This is the first account we have of the gift of prophesy among the disciples, but Agabus and his companions appear to have been already known as prophets, probably from previous exercises of this gift. Paul tells us the importance of prophets in Ephesians:
having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, (Ephesians 2:20 NASB)
They, along with the apostles, were responsible for laying the foundation of the Church.
Prophets were gifted men who were second only to the apostles in the founding days of the Church. A prophet in the New Testament refers to one who has the insight into divine things and who speaks them forth. Sometimes prophecy was predictive, as we see in our text in Acts where Agabus predicts a famine.
Sometimes prophecy spoke for God rather than predicting the future. For instance, not everything Isaiah said was predictive. So prophets gave present and future truth. When they spoke of the future, they were to be 100% accurate, or they were to die.
'I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. (Deuteronomy 18:18 NASB)
This is speaking of Jesus. He calls him a prophet and then says, "I will put my words in his mouth." A prophet is the mouth of God:
'And it shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him. 20 'But the prophet who shall speak a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.' 21 "And you may say in your heart, 'How shall we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?' 22 "When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him. (Deuteronomy 18:19-22 NASB)
A prophet is the mouth of God:
Then the LORD said to Moses, "See, I make you as God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. (Exodus 7:1 NASB)
Aaron was to speak for Moses, who was as God to Pharaoh. Marvin Vincent says of prophecy: "Prophecy is utterance under immediate divine inspiration; delivering inspired exhortation, instructions or warnings. The fact of direct inspiration distinguished prophecy from teaching." Before the completion of revealed truth in the Scriptures, the prophets were inspired revealers of God"s teaching to the churches. They told the infant churches what they should do, believe, and teach. Their ministry was later superceded by the Bible.
The First Testament prophets were around only until the close of the First Testament canon. Then the prophets didn't appear again in the four hundred year period after the First Testament writings were completed. When prophets appeared again, they were evidence that the "last days" had come (2:17-18).
One commentator writes, "Since we too live in the last days, should we in the church expect to find prophets foretelling the future?" What is wrong with that statement? We are not living in the "last days." The last days ended in the destruction of the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70. And when the last days ended, so did the ministry of prophets. There are no prophets today! There aren't any prophets today because the Word of God gives us all we need. If you want to know God's mind on a matter, read your Bible.
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. (Acts 11:28 NASB)
"The world"--is this famine worldwide? No, this means the Roman empire, not North America. Famine was quite common in that day. They didn't have Farm Fresh and Food Lion, but lived off the land.
This is one of the historical confirmations of the book of Acts. For not only does Josephus, the Jewish historian, record this famine, but two Roman historians speak of it as well. Suetonius and Tacitus both mention the great famine in the days of Claudius. We can positively date this event in A. D. 44-45.
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. (Acts 11:29-30 NASB)
For the most part 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. Yet, on hearing of the coming famine, they collect together a fund according as each is able so that they may send it to the churches of Judea.
Their generosity sounds very much like what we have already seen earlier in Acts:
And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. (Acts 2:44-45 NASB)
This is how the very first Christians lived. Stop and think about this, it is staggering. They were selling their stuff to meet the needs of others. When is the last time you sold something to help out another believer? This is love, these are disciples of Christ:
"By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:35 NASB)
We see this same generosity in:
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them. (Acts 4:32 NASB)
"Not one" is emphatic here: "not even one"--"claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them." Can you understand this? Their attitude was: Whatever is mine is yours. Just like us, anything that they had, they had worked hard for; but unlike us, they didn't view it as their own.
How much personal responsibility do you feel for the physical needs of others, especially the church in the Third World? Though we cannot meet every need that global news brings to our attention, we can still do something to live out the holistic liberality that is an essential mark of being disciples.
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.
"The elders"--It was the name by which the leaders of the tribes of Israel were known when Moses went to them. The organizers and planners who ran the synagogues were called "elders," and here it simply indicates the leaders of the churches of Judea. This is the first time that elders, as a distinct class, are mentioned in connection with the congregations of disciples.
There are three terms used in the New Testament to describe church leaders, and none of them are "reverend," they are, "bishop, elder, and pastor." The most widely used New Testament designation for local church leaders is elders.
Elder is the Greek word presbuteros. It is used 70 times in the New Testament. It refers to mature in age. Presbuteros is used 20 times in Acts and the epistles in reference to leaders in the Church.
Every place in the New Testament where the term presbuteros is used, it is plural, except where John and Peter use it to speak of themselves. The norm in the New Testament Church was a plurality of elders. There is no reference in all the New Testament to a one-pastor congregation. Today's tradition of a single pastor leading a church is not the Biblical norm, but is a violation of the Scriptural pattern.
What is the point of Luke telling this story of the famine? Is it to show us the love of these Gentile converts toward their Jewish brothers? Sure, it does that. But I don't think that is his main purpose. Luke is again telling us that prophecy of the restoration of Israel was being fulfilled. This is the theme of the book of Acts, and again we see the fulfillment of prophecy. Luke's story is that Israel is being restored by the Messiah in the establishment of the Church. From Acts 1 through 10 we have seen over and over Luke quoting the Hebrew Scriptures of the reestablishment of Israel and applying those prophecies to the Church, because the Church was the New Israel.
Look with me at Isaiah 60, this is a Messianic prophecy. It concerns the restoration of Israel; the calling of the Gentiles, and how the Gentiles would view restored Israel:
"Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 "For behold, darkness will cover the earth, And deep darkness the peoples; But the LORD will rise upon you, And His glory will appear upon you. 3 "And nations will come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising. 4 "Lift up your eyes round about, and see; They all gather together, they come to you. Your sons will come from afar, And your daughters will be carried in the arms. 5 "Then you will see and be radiant, And your heart will thrill and rejoice; Because the abundance of the sea will be turned to you, The wealth of the nations will come to you. (Isaiah 60:1-5 NASB)
The word "nations" here could be and should be translated: "Gentiles." Notice verse 5, "The wealth of the Gentiles will come to you." Who is the "you"? It is restored Israel. God said that when Israel was saved, the Gentiles would also come to the light, and the Gentiles would give their wealth to Israel. These two groups hated each other, and the Gentiles would have never wilfully given wealth to Israel. But in Christ they are now brothers. So out of love they do what they normally would never have done.
When the believers at Antioch sent a contribution to Judea, the Gentiles were bringing their wealth to Israel. They were, in fact, fulfilling this prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah 60 finds its fulfillment in Jew and Gentile worshiping God together as one body.
God's prophecies to Israel are being fulfilled throughout the book of Acts, Israel is being restored. This restoration is not physical, as so many today assume. And if we didn't have the New Testament to expound on these prophecies, we could see how people would assume they were physical. But these prophecies are being fulfilled in the Church, the true Israel. To see this, look with me at Isaiah:
"And foreigners will build up your walls, And their kings will minister to you; For in My wrath I struck you, And in My favor I have had compassion on you. 11 "And your gates will be open continually; They will not be closed day or night, So that men may bring to you the wealth of the nations, With their kings led in procession. 12 "For the nation and the kingdom which will not serve you will perish, And the nations will be utterly ruined. 13 "The glory of Lebanon will come to you, The juniper, the box tree, and the cypress together, To beautify the place of My sanctuary; And I shall make the place of My feet glorious. 14 "And the sons of those who afflicted you will come bowing to you, And all those who despised you will bow themselves at the soles of your feet; And they will call you the city of the LORD, The Zion of the Holy One of Israel. 15 "Whereas you have been forsaken and hated With no one passing through, I will make you an everlasting pride, A joy from generation to generation. 16 "You will also suck the milk of nations, And will suck the breast of kings; Then you will know that I, the LORD, am your Savior, And your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob. (Isaiah 60:10-16 NASB)
Apart from the New Covenant truth, we would view this as a physical restoration. But the New Testament writers give us the true meaning of these verses:
"And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this: 8 'I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name. 9 'Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews, and are not, but lie-- behold, I will make them to come and bow down at your feet, and to know that I have loved you. (Revelation 3:7-9 NASB)
Who would say they were Jews, but weren't? Physical Israel. Jesus said that an unbelieving Jew was of the synagogue of Satan. A true Jew, a true Israelite is one who has trusted in Jesus Christ and has been circumcised in heart.
Those who are the Israelites of God's prophetic purpose are not those who are Jews ethnically or outwardly. But those who are the Israelites of God's prophetic purpose are those who are Jews spiritually and inwardly. Notice what Jesus says in Revelation 3:9. Jesus is quoting here from Isaiah 60:
"And the sons of those who afflicted you will come bowing to you, And all those who despised you will bow themselves at the soles of your feet; And they will call you the city of the LORD, The Zion of the Holy One of Israel. . (Isaiah 60:14 NASB)
If we were an Old Covenant Jew, we would understand this prophecy of Isaiah as our Gentile enemies being subservient to us. But Jesus uses this verse and applies it to the Church, that is true Israel and it is Old Covenant Israel that is persecuting the Church. Jesus said that the Old Covenant Jews were going to come and bow before the feet of the Church, the true Israel of God.
Again and again throughout the book of Acts we see God fulfilling His promises to Israel. This book is about the restoration of Israel, true Israel, the Church.
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