The Lord's Day Evening
January 7, 2007
To The End of the Earth
Call Them ‘Christians!’
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me to The Acts of the Apostles. We’re now in chapter 11. As it so happens in the providence of God, this passage is a bridging passage between what has gone before and, in many ways, what is about to occur; and of course what is about to occur are the great missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul. So far we know nothing much about Paul in The Acts of the Apostles. So far he's still called Saul, and besides which he's gone off to Tarsus, and he may well have gone back to Tarsus for many years. It depends on how you do the chronology, but according to some, possibly as many as nine or possibly even ten years back in Tarsus. So a lot has to happen and change in order for the missionary journeys that we're all familiar with in Acts to actually take place. And so it's very convenient this evening if you haven't been in Acts with me for a while–it's very convenient that this just happens to be one of those bridging passages that reminds us of certain things in the past and anticipates certain things that are about to happen in the future.
Now before we read this passage together, let's once again look to the Lord and ask for His blessing, His illumination upon our minds and upon our hearts as we read the word of God together. Let us pray.
Our Father in heaven, we are a needy people. Without You, truly we can do nothing. All our efforts, all our study, all our worship is in vain; and we do pray now as we come to the Scriptures that the light of the Holy Spirit might shine upon us to enlighten our minds, to give us understanding. We want to know what lies not just on the surface of these words, but what lies beneath, and we want to know what it is that we ought to do as a result of reading it. For truly, to read is one thing, but to do it another, and we want to be doers of Your word. Teach us what it means to be a godly church. Come, Holy Spirit, and shine Your light for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Now this is God's holy and inerrant word:
“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who, on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.
“Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch, and one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world. This took place in the days of Claudius. So the disciples determined, every one of them according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea, and they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.”
Amen. May the Lord add His blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant word.
This morning in worship the choir sang, as they often do, that wonderful introit that begins with those words, “The Lord reigns!” And in many ways it could be written as a banner over The Acts of the Apostles, because in many respects The Acts of the Apostles is about just that: that the Lord reigns; that Christ rules; that nothing can withstand the purposes of Almighty God; that the train of the gospel is firmly set upon the tracks that inexorably lead to glory, and nothing can stop it.
In many ways that's what Acts has been about; the triumph of King Jesus as the church now begins to spread from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the world. There are two bookends to The Acts of the Apostles, one which you've heard me repeat now almost ad nauseum: Acts 1:8, where the resurrected Savior just before His ascension, in giving the program of gospel administration to the apostles, tells them that it is part of the plan and purpose of Almighty God that the gospel now spread out in almost concentric circles from its base in Jerusalem to Judea, and then to Samaria, and then to the ends of the world.
Now in the very last verse of the very last chapter of Acts — and that's chapter 18 — the very last verse...not often in the English, but in the Greek...the very last word is a word that says the same thing. Luke is describing the Apostle Paul as a prisoner in Rome, and during his imprisonment he is allowed to preach the gospel, and Luke says he is preaching the gospel without hindrance. Without hindrance...as though Luke is saying at the beginning of Acts and at the end of Acts this is what it's all been about. It's about the gospel going forth without hindrance. Not without opposition, but going forth accomplishing the design and purpose and end and trajectory that God has planned for it. It is of course in another sense part of the fulfillment of one of the key texts of the New Testament: that passage in Matthew 16 where Jesus says to the disciples, and to Peter especially, at Caesarea Philippi...His intention to build His church, “...and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” God will triumph. The purposes of Jesus Christ will prevail. The kingdom of darkness will not prevail.
And of course, if you’re thinking biblically you’ll immediately think of the fact that this is but yet another fulfillment of yet another passage of Scripture that is equally important, and that is Genesis 3:15; that what we see in The Acts of the Apostles is the redemptive outflow of the promise made in the Garden of Eden that the seed of the woman will crush the very head of Satan; that the purposes of God in redemption will prevail.
Now here in the closing verses of Acts 11, as I've just said, we have what we might call a bridging passage that draws together some of the threads, as Luke has told the narrative of the growth of the church from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria, and to Antioch on the northeast coast on the Mediterranean; and anticipating new threads, the seeds of which have already been sown...but those new threads as they especially weave and interweave around the ministry of the Apostle Paul.
So they find themselves in Antioch. Antioch is mission base for gospel purposes. From now on it will no longer be Jerusalem, although Jerusalem will endeavor to extend its concern and in some respects its authority (we’ll see that in this very passage), but to all intents and purposes the center of focus has moved away from Jerusalem. That in itself is huge and significant, if you were Jews living at this time. That would blow your categories away - that the center is no longer Jerusalem; the center now seems to be Antioch, this third city of the Roman Empire, next to Rome and Alexandria in North Africa; a city, interestingly enough, of a population of about half a million, roughly. The extended population may be of greater Jackson...a significant city; a city that lay somewhat inland, and a few miles down to the coast would be the wonderful port city of Seleucia, the gateway to the Mediterranean. It was here in Antioch that the Roman Empire had its great Syrian Legion. A cosmopolitan city...in fact, the Roman Empire regarded Antioch as a pagan city, a city of somewhat loose morals. We can think of cities like Corinth, perhaps, and perhaps even Rome...but Antioch, in the minds of the Romans, was such a city.
And Luke in verse 19 reminds us now of threads that have brought us to Antioch. What has brought us to Antioch? Well, what has brought us to Antioch is a result of the persecution that followed in the wake of the martyrdom of Stephen (you see that in verse 19). He's pulling threads now from the martyrdom of Stephen, a story that he's already told; and, as a result of that, many of the disciples, you remember, fled from Jerusalem. They went to all parts, including Judea and Samaria, and also some of them evidently ended up in Antioch.
And not only Stephen, but a second figure — the figure of Barnabas. You have to love Barnabas! Every church should have at least one Barnabas, the son of encouragement. And we've already met Barnabas on a couple of occasions: in chapter 4 and again in chapter 9, and he will figure for another few chapters again...Barnabas, the son of encouragement...and he is the ambassador that is sent from Jerusalem to Antioch to investigate what's taking place in the city.
And Saul. Stephen, Barnabas, and Saul. The last we heard of Saul, he had gone, you remember, to Jerusalem after possibly...depends on how you do the chronology, but after a period in Arabia he had left Jerusalem because they sought to take his life. They had taken him to Damascus. He was taken by sea to Caesarea, and then he went off to Tarsus, his home city, and nothing has been heard of him since.
So the stage is set. Men and women have left Jerusalem and they've come to Antioch, and they have spoken only to Jews. But others from the Dispersion, principally from places like Cyprus and Cyrene, they had spoken to the Hellenists, or Gentiles. And so what has happened in Antioch is that a great number of Gentiles have come to the faith. They've trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ. They've come to embrace the Lord Jesus. And in Antioch you've got a different kind of setting and a different kind of church than the one you've got in Jerusalem that was largely made up of converted Jews. And the folks in Jerusalem are understandably, from one point of view, concerned. What would happen to these converted Gentiles? Are they going to obey some of the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament? The food laws, the kosher laws, the Sabbath laws, the law of circumcision? And that of course is anticipating something that is going to come, and especially in Acts 15 when there will be a big council in Jerusalem. And they decide to send Barnabas up to investigate.
I. The hand of God.
Now four things emerge in the story. The first is this little expression the hand of God. You see it there in verse 21:
“And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.”
“The hand of the Lord....” It sounds so very familiar to us, the expression the hand of the Lord, because it's an Old Testament expression, but it actually occurs only three times in the New Testament, and in all three cases it's by Luke. Apart from here and a brief reference to it in the issue of a brief episode with Elymas the sorcerer in Acts 13, the only other reference to this expression the hand of the Lord is at the time of the death of the then unborn John the Baptist...that the hand of the Lord will be upon him. Luke is using an Old Testament expression to depict the invisible God making Himself known in a tangible way in the company of God's people. The invisible hand of God, the invisible power of God has been manifested in Antioch in the conversion of a great number of people — a revival, you and I would say in the old historic Calvinistic sense of the term — a revival, a sovereign outpouring of the Holy Spirit has taken place in Antioch, and God has drawn to Himself a great number of people.
Now notice what Luke actually says here, because it is in reference to verse 20 that Luke goes on to say in verse 21 “...and the hand of the Lord was with them.” The hand of the Lord was with them as they spoke, one to Jews and another group to Gentiles. It is as they engage in this ministry of evangelism that the hand of the Lord was upon them. It wasn't that the hand of the Lord came upon them just as they sat there and did nothing. Luke is saying it was as they engaged in this gospel ministry of speaking to their fellow men and women about the Lord Jesus Christ, as they engaged in gospel evangelism, that God's hand of power and blessing came down upon them.
I was reminding a Sunday School class that I happened to be teaching of the story of William Carey, and it's often told–it may be apocryphal. Historians quibble as to the exactness of the rendition of this story, but it is often told...the gist of it is certainly true.
William Carey, of course, had been converted and had this great burden. You remember, he’d been reading The Life and Times of Captain Cook and his journeys to the Far East and the rest of the world, and it was as a result of reading that secular book of tales on the high seas and of lands that few had ever seen that his heart was burdened at the thought of men and women and boys and girls who were growing up and living and dying, who didn't know Jesus Christ and were going to a lost eternity. And he saw it as the burden of the church to send missionaries to the far flung corners of the earth to bring the gospel to the lost and perishing. And in proposing to a board of missions that he himself had partly aided in establishing, he proposed that a missionary organization be set up and that he be sent along with some others to India. And the elderly chairman of this committee told him, “Sit down, young man. If God is going to save the heathen, He will do it without your help or mine.”
Now, it may not actually have been said quite in those terms — it probably wasn't. You can understand what that man was saying, and in one sense you can sympathize with it and endorse it, because from one sense what that man was trying to protect was the sovereignty of God. What that man was trying to protect was that conversion is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit; that regeneration is not the work of men, it's the work of the Holy Spirit. But of course what Carey had seen, and he had seen so very clearly, is that God not only ordains the ends but He ordains the means to achieve that end. And the end is the salvation of the elect, and the means of saving the elect is evangelism and missions. And that's what Luke is saying here: that God's hand of blessing was on these men and women who had been scattered to Antioch from Jerusalem and Cyprus and Cyrene, and as they gospelled the good news, the hand of God was upon them, and a great many were added to the Lord. They were added to the Lord. That's the first thing - the hand of God.
2. Barnabas, the son of encouragement
The second thing is of course Barnabas–Barnabas, the son of encouragement. You can understand the concerns of the mother church in Jerusalem. You can understand it. You can understand the concerns of some of the elders in the church in Jerusalem, some of the chief men who had been converted to the Lord and wanted to maintain the integrity and the wholeness and the soundness of the faith. And you can understand that as the gospel moved away from Jerusalem, there was a tendency for the gospel (and for the traditions of the fathers especially) to be watered down. There was a concern that the purity of the gospel, the purity of the faith, be maintained. You can understand that. That concern can often result in a kind of authoritarianism, and the administration of oversight can sometimes degenerate into a desire to control; and the desire to control can sometimes result in a squelching of enthusiasm and zeal, and especially that kind of enthusiasm and zeal of recently converted men and women whose souls and hearts are on fire for Jesus Christ.
Now, because...let's be fair to the church in Jerusalem. I'm sometimes on the edge with the church in Jerusalem, so let me be fair to the church in Jerusalem. It was a daring and bold and courageous and wise decision that the one man that they would send to engage in this oversight of what's taking place up in Antioch, and especially the conversion of these Gentiles, was Barnabas. You could not have sent a better man.
You know, had they sent anybody else other than Barnabas, not only would the face of the church be entirely different today, but the course — yes! — the course of world history would be different from what it is today. Because if Barnabas hadn't gone to Antioch, Saul of Tarsus might never have been brought to Antioch, and then the course of the church and the course of world history would have been entirely different than the way it is. Barnabas was a nickname. I wonder why we don't give each other nicknames. Maybe we do, and we just don't say so. His real name, of course, is Joseph. They called him Barnabas, the son of encouragement.
You know, there was a man in the time of John Calvin, the time of the Reformation, called Olivetan,1 which I suppose today we would call olive oil. And they called him Olivetan (or olive oil) because he was always pouring oil into his lamp to study and write and read. He was one of the great figures of the Reformation. He was given a nickname.
Barnabas is a man whose life (look at verse 24) bore fruit. “...He was a good man and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Now you understand that when Luke says that, Luke knows Barnabas. Luke is writing this story of course after the fact, but Luke has spent many years with Barnabas. Luke has gone on missionary journeys with Barnabas. Luke has been on board ship with Barnabas. He's traversed parts of Eastern Europe with Barnabas. He has slept probably in the same tent as Barnabas; he's eaten food alongside Barnabas. He knows Barnabas. He knows him in his worst of times, and this is Luke's estimation of Barnabas: that he was a man who was full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. He was a man, then, whose life bore fruit.
And Barnabas, you notice, engages now in an examination of what's taking place in Antioch, and Luke says that he was glad. When he came and saw the grace of God (verse 23), he was glad. You know, he was glad because that's the kind of man Barnabas was. Because I think what cheered the heart of Barnabas was the sight and the evidence of the presence of God. Godliness, the work of God, gladdened his heart. It's what motivated him. It's what gave him joy. It's what put a skip in his walk. He loved the things of God.
Now the most astonishing thing of all that Barnabas did was go to Tarsus to find Saul. And you understand what that means, because from one point of view he is saying that the church in Antioch and the church perhaps generally needs gifts that he himself doesn't possess.
You know, it takes a godly man to admit that — that the church needs gifts that I don't possess. He goes to find a man, Saul, and you know what the result of this will be. And I think that Barnabas had an inkling of what the results of this would be, because in a couple of chapters, Luke will do an extraordinary thing. At the minute, it's “Barnabas and Saul...Barnabas and Saul.” But round about chapter 14, it will all of a sudden change, and it won't be Barnabas and Saul, it will be “Saul and Barnabas.” And all of a sudden the one who's in the limelight is no longer Barnabas, it's Saul of Tarsus. And Barnabas engaged in an act that deliberately put himself out of the limelight. He did a John the Baptist kind of thing, where another would become greater and he would become less.
I'm saying tonight that it takes a great deal of godliness and it takes a great deal of humility to do what Barnabas did, and it's an extraordinary act, a self-deprecating act, of humility. It's a Jesus-like act. It's a Philippians 2 —
“Let this mind be in you as was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation....”
— and Barnabas did a Jesus-like thing. He went to Tarsus to look for Saul. Now Luke uses a verb, to look for, that he only uses one other time, and it's the time when Luke is describing the feverish activity of Mary and Joseph. You remember when they’re going back from Jerusalem to Galilee and they can't find the boy Jesus. And they've gone a day's journey, and there's this feverish activity looking for Him–and of course He's still back in Jerusalem. And it's that kind of feverish activity that takes place in Tarsus.
Now, why? Surely Saul would be in his parents’ home. No. Because in all probability when Paul tells us in Philippians 3 that he suffered the loss of all things, one of the consequences of his conversion to Jesus Christ was that he was disinherited by his parents. And I think that when Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul and he would ask for Saul of Tarsus, people would look in the other direction because they were ashamed of Saul of Tarsus. And Saul of Tarsus now is brought back to Antioch.
3. The new name of Christian.
Well, the third thing I want us to see here is the new name — the new name of Christian. You notice the first thing that Saul does when he comes back to Antioch: a year of teaching. Barnabas and Saul spent a year teaching in the church in Antioch.
Now, you know what's coming. You can draw the application. You can see it. Because I think Luke is saying to us...you know, in one sense you would understand that Barnabas might bring Saul of Tarsus back in order to get things going! To get some activity in the church in Antioch! To bring some kind of program to the church in Antioch...to do something!
Well, they will do something. They will do more than something, but they’re not ready yet to do that something to the glory of God, and they need to be taught, because doctrine is important, and teaching is important, and exposition of the word of God is important. There were things they needed to know. There were things they needed to understand. There were elements of New Testament Christianity that were still very new to them. There was a relationship between converted Jew and converted Gentile that was ever so delicate, and they needed to be taught what it means to be in union with Christ: that there was neither Jew nor Gentile.
And it's as a result of this teaching — and as a result not just of the teaching, but as a result of what this teaching did for them — that those outside of the faith called them Christians. They don't call themselves Christians. Actually, they don't call themselves Christians until the second century. This — and it occurs on two other occasions in the New Testament, and in each occasion the reference to Christian comes from those who are outside of the faith. They saw that these people...and it's ever so significant.... You see, in one respect up until now there were only two kinds of people. There were Jews and there were Gentiles. And all of a sudden, as a result of the teaching of Saul of Tarsus and Barnabas, those outside of the faith are no longer able to categorize them as either Jew or Gentile. They are just as...Antioch was the third city after Rome and Alexandria...it's as though in Antioch there's a third race of men and women who are neither Jew nor Gentile. They are Christians. They are those who belong to the household of Christ. They are followers of Jesus Christ.
You know, I think it says something about the times in which these people lived. This was a pagan time, a pagan city. You know we talk all the time about living in a post-Christian society, and in many respects the capital of the influence of Christianity upon our culture has long since been spent. We've drawn from that capital and spent it a long time ago, and we were saying this morning how difficult it is for young people to be raised in this society of ours...the temptations that they face that some of us never had to face as young people. And the temptation is, in the light of that, to draw the conclusion that the church can never flourish in this society as it did in the former more Christian society. And nothing could be further from the truth, because it's in this pagan society that the Christian church so flourished that even those outside saw that they were followers of Jesus Christ.
You know one of the things that will knock us out in our time, in our so-called Christian era? You can't be a nominal Christian in our society for much longer. You know...what is nominal Christianity? Nominal Christianity is a kind of religion that wants to follow the Joneses. It wants to follow what other people are doing. But if other people are going towards paganism, their nominal Christianity will go towards paganism. And you know one of the things that will emerge in our time is that the wheat and the chaff will be sorted out. Because in the times that these people were living in Antioch, you couldn't have such a thing as nominal Christianity. You were either for Christ or you were against Him. And it emerged in a very clear way that there was this community of people in Antioch who were followers of Jesus Christ out and out. It's a kind of counter-culture that emerges in Antioch, and even the world could see it.
And, oh, my friends! Oh, if they could see it here at First Presbyterian Church! That we are not the dedicated followers of fashion because of to quote a song from the Sixties or Seventies; we are not the dedicated followers of fashion. But, oh, my! We are the dedicated followers of fashion far, far too often. These men and women in Antioch stood out as Christians, as followers of Christ.
4. They were generous.
Well, there's a fourth thing, and very briefly. This is a time of course that the apostles and prophets, the foundational elements of the church before the New Testament was written, and prophets are sent up now from Jerusalem, one of whom is Agabus. We will see Agabus again in Acts 21. There's a lot of discussion about the nature of Agabus’ prophecy. I'm going to hold all of that discussion until we come to chapter 21, but briefly it's about that there are two kinds of prophecy: one that is infallible and another kind of prophecy that is less than infallible...fallible, in other words. And that in Agabus we have a prophecy that is less than infallible. And the argument of course then is that there's a continuing role for prophets in our own time. Well, I don't accept that analysis, but I'm telling you about it now. We’ll come back to it when we come to Acts 21. But what I want to ask is this: He prophesies a world-wide famine. He's speaking of a famine in the mid-40's. There was a flooding of the Nile River in A.D. 45, and as a result, the Egyptian harvest was destroyed and grain prices rocketed; and as a result, from 46-48 there was a famine in Judea.
What did the church in Antioch do when they heard that prophecy? It hasn't come to pass yet, but what did they do as a result of hearing that prophecy?
Do you remember what certain Christians did around the time of Y2K? If you were one of them, just don't put your hand up! But do you remember what certain Christians did at the time of Y2K? They hoarded. They hoarded. And the church in Antioch did exactly the opposite. On hearing that there was going to be a famine, they sent according to their means to relieve the church's in Judea. You see, they were asking and answering a very practical question: “As a result of what God has told us, what does God want us to do?” And God had told them there was going to be a famine, and God didn't tell them what to do. They just did it. They saw it as the only right thing to do, to give from the bounty of their own means to the needs of those in Judea.
You know, in a church like this in Antioch you can understand why they needed to be called by a new name, because there was something new about them, and fresh and exciting, and wonderfully Christ-like, and loving and big-hearted. And they called them Christians.
May God write this word upon our own hearts, for His name's sake.
Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You now for the Scriptures and for this passage. We ask for Your blessing. Write it upon our hearts. Give us, we pray, an out and out love and zeal for the things of the kingdom of God. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
1. Heritage of the Waldensians, WRS Journal, 1996, Judith Collins.
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Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.