In chapter 1 of the book of Acts, we read how the Lord ascended back to heaven, leaving the Apostles to chose someone else to replace Judas who had killed himself. And then in chapter 2 we read what happened on the Day of Pentecost. On that day, the Lord’s disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. There was the sound of a rushing wind. There were flames of fire. They were able to praise God in other languages. And when a crowd gathered to see what was happening, Peter explained that the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus Christ, from his throne in heaven, had sent his Spirit upon them. And he sent his Spirit on them to fulfil the promise God had made through the OT prophet Joel that in the last days he would pour out his Spirit on all kinds of people. All kinds of people would receive his Spirit and would be added to his church. It would be just as the Lord had promised through Joel:
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
After Stephen was killed, the believers fled from Jerusalem and were scattered here, there and everywhere. And one of them, Philip the Evangelist, came to a city in Samaria. And he preached the gospel to the Samaritans. The Samaritans were half-Jews and half-Gentiles. And many of them believed and were baptised. And when Peter and John arrived to see what was happening, the Samaritan believers were also filled with the Holy Spirit. God was keeping his promise to pour out his Spirit on all kinds of people and to grant salvation to everyone who calls on his name. Not just the Jews, but Samaritans too were filled with his Spirit and were added to the church.
And then, in Acts 10, we read how Cornelius and the members of his household were also filled with the Holy Spirit. And, of course, Cornelius was a Gentile. And so, once again, God was keeping his promise to pour out his Spirit on all kinds of people and to grant salvation to everyone who calls on his name. Salvation is not for the Jews and Samaritans only. It’s for the Gentiles too. And in the book of Acts, we’ve seen how the Lord Jesus, from his throne in heaven, has been building his church here on earth through the preaching of the gospel and the power of his Holy Spirit. And believing Jews and believing Samaritans and believing Gentiles were being saved from the wrath and curse of God and they were being added to the church.
Last time we were looking at the book of Acts, we spent our time on verses 1 to 18 of chapter 11 where Peter goes up to Jerusalem to explain to the church there what had happened when he went and preached in the home of Cornelius. And having explained what had happened, we read in verse 18 that the members of the church in Jerusalem praised God because God had granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life.
Verses 19 to 21
Back in verse 1 of chapter 8 we read that, after Stephen’s death, a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem against the church and many of the believers were scattered. But wherever they went, they preached the word. And now, in verse 19 of chapter 11, Luke resumes his account of how the gospel went out from Jerusalem following that persecution. So we read how those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch. Phoenicia was on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. It was slightly north of Jerusalem. Cyprus, of course, is an island in the Mediterranean. And Antioch was a major city at the time, a few miles inland from the Mediterranean. And it was even further north of Jerusalem than Phoenicia. So, these believers are going further and further from Jerusalem. And look at the end of verse 19: As they went, they made known the message of the gospel.
This reminds us — doesn’t it? — how the Lord is able to bring great good out of great evil. The Devil was trying to destroy the church by persecution, but all his efforts are frustrated, because instead of destroying the church which is what the Devil wanted, the church grew. The persecution, which was terrible, caused the believers to scatter. But as they were scattered, the gospel message spread. And through the preaching of his word, the Lord Jesus continued to build his church on the earth.
He’s able to bring great good out of great evil. So, whenever we hear of trouble facing the church, we needn’t despair. But we should look to the Lord for his help and pray to him that he will not let the gates of hell prevail, but that he will strengthen his people to remain faithful and to preach his word. Because, through the preaching of his word, the church grows.
In verse 19 we read that most of the believers who were scattered spoke the message to Jews only. However, verse 20, some of them — these believers from Cyprus and Cyrene — went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also. In other words, they spoke to Greek-speaking Gentiles. And what did they speak to them about? Well, look at the second half of verse 20. They told them the good news about the Lord Jesus.
In 1 Corinthians 2 the Apostle Paul wrote that when he went to Corinth he resolved, or he made up his mind, to know nothing among them or to speak to them about nothing else apart from the message of Jesus Christ crucified. Everywhere he went, Paul spoke of the Lord Jesus who died for sinners. And that’s what the believers who went to Antioch did as well.
I’ve said it before: Whenever we have the chance to speak to people about faith in Christ, let’s make sure we speak to them about faith in Christ, and not something else, because whoever hears of him, and believes in him, will be saved. Paul asked in Romans: How can they call on the Lord Jesus unless they believe? And how can they believe unless they hear? And how can they hear unless we tell them? And so, we’re to tell people about the Lord Jesus and why we ought to believe in him.
And that’s what happened in Antioch. The believers preached the message of the Lord Jesus. And, look at verse 21: Because the hand of the Lord was with them, a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
Christians are often tempted to think that the power to convert sinners lies in our hands. If we use the right method, if we use the right technique, then people will respond to our message and believe in the Lord Jesus. But Luke teaches what the rest of the Bible teaches us: salvation, from beginning to end, is the Lord’s work. He’s the one who sent the Saviour to die for us. And he’s the one who sends out preachers to preach about the Saviour. And he’s the one who sends out his Spirit to make our preaching effective. Our preaching would have no effect whatsoever, no matter what we do, if it were not for the Lord who works through the preaching of his word to convince and convert sinners to faith in Christ. So, we’re to do what these men from Cyprus and Cyrene did: We’re to tell people the good news about the Lord Jesus, as simply and clearly as possible. And whether they believe or not is in the hands of the Lord.
And, of course, since this is true, then we need to pray, don’t we? Thinking of all those mission teams this summer. Think of the services on Sunday. Think of missionaries, serving overseas. We must ask God to help those people to point people to the Saviour. And we must ask God to work through the preaching of his word to enable sinners to believe and to turn to the Lord.
Verses 22 to 26
Let me move on quickly. In verse 22 we read how news of what happened in Antioch reached Jerusalem. And once again, the church in Jerusalem sent someone to investigate what was happening. This time they sent Barnabas, who we read in verse 24 was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith. When he arrived in Antioch, he saw for himself the evidence of God’s grace in the lives of these new believers. And he was glad about it and encouraged these new believers to remain faithful to the Lord. And again, many more people were converted to faith in Christ. In fact, the church grew so much, that Barnabas needed help. And so he went to Tarsus to look for Paul. And the two of them spent another year in Antioch, meeting with the church, and teaching the people.
Luke adds a little note at the end of verse 26 to say that it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. One of the commentators says that in the ancient world you had the Jews who believed in one god and you had the pagans who believed in multiple gods. Those who believed in the Lord Jesus weren’t pagans, because they didn’t believe in many gods. But they weren’t Jews either, because they believed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And so, you needed a new name to describe this new group of people who weren’t pagans and who weren’t Jews. So, what were they? Since they made so much of Christ, and since they spoke of him, and believed in him, they became known as Christians — a word which really means ‘belonging to Christ’ or people who ‘identify with Christ’. And isn’t that what we want to be known as so that, after visitors have come to our church, they’ll go away thinking to themselves: ‘You know what? Those people really love the Lord Jesus Christ. They can’t stop talking about him and praising God for him.’
Verses 27 to 30
Back in verse 23 Luke tells us that Barnabas saw evidence of God’s grace in the believers in Antioch. And in verses 27 to 30 we see further evidence that God was at work among these people, changing them so that they became more and more like the Lord Jesus in their obedience to their Heavenly Father and in their love for one another.
So, we read how this prophet, Agabus, predicted that a famine would take place soon. And Luke adds that this in fact happened in the days of the Emperor Claudius. Well, when the believers in Antioch heard this, they were determined to do something in order to help the believers who were living in Judea. All of them gave what they could. And in verse 30 we read that Barnabas and Paul were sent off with their gift for them.
There are three things to notice briefly. First of all, we sometimes refer to the communion of the saints. Believers are united to Christ by faith. But we’re also united to one another in love and are under obligation to help our fellow believers. And here we see a remarkable example of this, because here we have Gentile believers sending help to Jewish believers. Once they were strangers, now they are brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Secondly, they provided help, each according to his ability. Those who could afford much, gave much. Those who could only afford to give a little, gave a little. That’s a good principle to apply today. Some of us are wealthier than others. Some of us have fewer financial obligations that others. When called to give help to believers who are in need, we should give according to our ability.
And thirdly, notice that they sent the money to the elders. In other words, one church sent help to another church. In the book of Acts, we read of churches sending help. We read of churches receiving help. Churches commissioned and sent out missionaries. And whenever missionaries went to a city and people were converted, a church was formed, and elders were appointed. Today we have lots of para-church organisations which exist alongside the church. Now, these para-church organisations have their place and many of them support the work of the church in important ways. However, while they have their place, they are always secondary to the church and can never replace the church, because the church has been instituted by God in his word. And the Lord Jesus has promised to build his church. And, as we have seen from this passage, he builds it through the preaching of his word and, in his church, he teaches his people to love and care for one another.