Summary: I preach expository messages, and this is the 21st in my series on the Book of Acts.
October 28, 2007
What are some things that we can’t see, feel, hear, smell, or taste, and yet we know are real? How do we know these things are real?
Before we plunge headlong into today’s text, let’s take a few moments and set the
• The Lingering Question:
“Is this Gentile Thing Real?”
When we left off, the question for the church in Jerusalem was, “is it real?” “Is it true that Gentiles have come to faith in Christ without becoming Jews first?” Peter, testifying before the church leaders in Jerusalem, had answered in the affirmative, boldly proclaiming what he’d seen with his own two eyes. Here, Luke the author skillfully demonstrates the continued unfolding of the plan of God, as the gospel continues to go further out, radiating away from its center in Jerusalem out to the world. Here, we see, not just individual believers being born from above, but now, we see the first Gentile church coming into being. And it is the theme of the gospel advancing among Gentiles that occupies the rest of the book of Acts.
• The Dispersion Caused by Persecution
Verses 19 and 20 serve to set the stage for our main thought today. Remember that when Stephen was killed in Jerusalem for his faith in Christ, a great persecution of Christ-followers broke out there, and it got so bad that the Greek-speaking Jews, the Hellenists, who had come to live in Jerusalem, had to flee for their lives. Like throwing seeds to the wind, this had the effect of the sowing of the gospel all over the place among other Jews, and this is exactly what happened in our story today. On the screen is a map of some of the places that the gospel penetrated to that are mentioned in today’s text. Among the large Jewish population in Antioch, these displaced Hellenist Christians began to share the message of Jesus, and some Jews believed and accepted Jesus as the Messiah. But there were some others who undertook an experiment of sorts, reasoning that if Jesus Christ was the Messiah, and He could bring redemption and change to Jews, could He not also among Gentiles? And so they began to share with their Gentile friends the message of salvation in Christ. After all, even among these pagan Gentiles, there were many who sought some sort of salvation, and terms like “Lord” and “Savior” were common among them even before they ever heard that Jesus Christ of Nazareth might be the Lord and Savior of the world.
And it worked. A church was planted in Antioch, no small feat!
o 3rd-Largest City in the World
o 500,000 people
o “An Ancient Las Vegas”
Antioch had been founded 300+ years earlier, and by the time of Luke’s writing, was the third-largest city in the world, trailing only Rome and Alexandria, with a population of a half-million people. It had a sizable Jewish population, but was known, as many large cities in that day were and in this day are, for its loose morals. Ritual prostitution was rampant there, and every sort of vice could be found in abundance. The witness of the early church, then, would stand in stark contrast to the surrounding culture; hold that thought for later. It was a cosmopolitan city, a culture where, as one person put it, “they had their rough corners rubbed smooth, and traditional attitudes which were taken so seriously in a place like Jerusalem did not matter much.” As such, this was the ideal place to serve as the birthplace of Gentile Christianity, and Antioch remained a center for Christian faith for hundreds of years to come.
God was moving among the Gentiles, and because word of this got back to Jerusalem, the church there sent a man named Barnabas—actually, nicknamed “Barnabas”, because that name means “Son of encouragement’—to check out what was going on in Antioch, to report back to them on the status of this movement. Barnabas was a Jew, but one born on the island of Cyprus, outside the territory of Israel, and thus would have been a bit more naturally sympathetic and open to outsiders than, say, Jews who’d spent their whole lives in Palestine. The concern in Jerusalem was no doubt something like this: “things are getting out of control! What with the household of Cornelius converting, and now, Jews and Gentiles alike make up the church in Antioch; are we sure this is of God?” It sure burst their paradigms.
This fellow Barnabas was introduced to us in Acts 4. There, we learn that his real name was Joseph, but he’d already developed such a reputation as a man whose mission was to encourage others that they called him “son of encouragement”. He sold a field and brought the money that he made from it, laid it at the feet of the apostles, and it was distributed to any in the church who had need. Then we read of him again in Acts 9, right after Saul has his experience with Christ on the road to Damascus, the whole blinding-light thing, and it’s Barnabas who takes up the cause of Saul, this man who had done all he could to intimidate Christians, but who now was himself one. In short, Barnabas was a guy who had proven himself to be the perfect man for this job of checking out the new church in Antioch. And the description of him is three-fold, in verse 24: he was “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit, and full of faith”. In other words, he trusted God implicitly—and walking by faith requires venturing out on new ground sometimes, such as he was doing here—he was controlled by the Holy Spirit of God, such that he yielded himself to God to do God’s bidding, and he demonstrated God’s control through a life that, when looked at by others, they saw his good works and glorified God. Barnabas was the right man for this job!