Acts 11: 19-30

Text Comment

v.19     In other words, Luke is picking up the thread of his narrative from 8:4, where he described the persecution in Jerusalem that had scattered many of the Christians there.

v.20     Most of the Jewish Christians who had left Jerusalem to escape the persecution had been faithful in preaching the gospel, but had preached it only to Jews. But there was a group of far-sighted men, whose names we do not know, who initiated a historic change by preaching the gospel to the Greeks, “Hellenists” as the ESV has it, a term which here identifies not citizens of Greece, but Gentiles who spoke Greek and were part of the Mediterranean-wide Greek culture.

In some ways Antioch was an ideal place to begin evangelism among Gentiles. It was the capital of the Roman province of Syria, a cosmopolitan city famous for his beautiful buildings, a center of trade that attracted people from many nations and peoples both east and west. It was a city of some half a million inhabitants, one of the great cities of the Mediterranean world. Josephus called it the third city of the empire, after Rome and Alexandria. It also had a large Jewish community.

v.21     If there had been any hesitation about the evangelization of Gentiles, the Lord himself put it to rest by bringing large numbers of them to Christian faith. But note the easy way in which the text here, very characteristically, moves between the human response – many believed and turned to the Lord – and the divine initiative behind it all – “the hand of the Lord was with them” and, later in v. 23, “the grace of God” – not one or the other, but sovereign grace and human freedom together. [Peterson, 353]

v.22     Whether there was lingering suspicion in the minds of some in the Jerusalem church or whether there was simply great interest in knowing more about what was happening, Barnabas was sent to provide a report. It was an inspired choice of envoy. Barnabas was a man with a large heart, unlikely to allow prevailing prejudices to cloud his judgment. He was the kind of man who could discern the grace of God in others! [Peterson, 355]

v.24     It didn’t take long for Barnabas to realize that these folk were really Christians, that the evidence of God’s grace in their lives was there for all to see. In any case, this was the first Christian church we know of that had among its members a substantial number of Gentiles, perhaps a majority. That is, of course, quite a different matter than one Ethiopian eunuch here or one Roman centurion there.

v.25     Some years had passed since the believers had sent Saul, recently converted, back to his home town of Tarsus for his safety’s sake. We know little of what Saul (or Paul) had been doing during those years, though his remarks in Galatians 1 indicate that he had been preaching throughout the general region. [Gal. 1:21] From remarks he makes in his letters we may assume that he suffered some severe persecution during these years and was, in all likelihood, disinherited by his family. Presumably Barnabas went looking for Saul both because he knew that Saul had been called by the Lord Jesus to preach to the Gentiles and so he was the man who should be at work in this beginning period of Gentile evangelization and because the work was progressing so rapidly help was needed.

v.26     “Christian” is a term typical of Greek terms that designate the followers or the devotees of a particular person. Think, for example, of Herodians, a term also found in the NT, that is, the followers of Herod. It must have taken some time for the term to catch on because it is mentioned only twice more in the NT (Acts 26:28 and 1 Pet. 4:16). In any case, the fact that they were distinguished as Christians by the local population means that the church in Antioch was predominantly Gentile not Jew. The populace would have been unlikely to discriminate between various Jewish sects, but these people were seen as neither Jews nor Greeks, but something new, a third race. Hence they needed a new name. [Peterson, 356]

v.27     This Agabus is apparently the same Agabus whom we will encounter again in 21:10 prophesying that Paul would be arrested in Jerusalem where he was heading at the end of his third missionary journey. We don’t yet know of one particular famine that overspread the entire Roman world during those years, but we do know of severe famines in various places during the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54) and one particularly severe one in Judea about which Josephus tells us that “many people died for want of what was necessary to procure food…” [Ant. XX, 2.5]

v.30     It seems most likely that this visit to Jerusalem is the visit described by Paul in Gal. 2:1-10. On that visit the question of Gentile freedom from Jewish ceremonial regulations was also discussed.

This is the first mention of “elders” in the post-Pentecost church. But the office was well known in the Jewish church, carried over as it was from the eldership in Israel. The precise denotation of the term here is hard to determine. “Elder” in first century Judaism, as we know from its use in the Gospels, often specifically identified a lay ruler, but it also served as for the leadership of the church in general, both priests and lay rulers.

It has long been thought that Luke himself might have been one of the early converts in Antioch, both because there is a tradition that dates at least as far back as the later 2nd century that Luke hailed from Antioch and because the Western text of the book of Acts begins verse 28 with the words, “When we were gathered together…” suggesting that the author of the book was present at this gathering of Christians in Antioch. This may account for why Luke saw fit to record this history. He was personally familiar with it and it was important to him. A century ago, for example, there were eight major histories of Napoleon’s Russia campaign, three by Frenchmen, three by Englishmen, and 2 by Scots. Only the two Scots mentioned the fact that one of the Russian generals was of Scottish extraction. Even historians are interested in different things for personal reasons! In the same way we may have this account of the founding of the church in Antioch because it was Luke’s home church. He wasn’t going to leave his home church out of his early Christian history! No one can say for sure.

As Christians learn very soon, Christian churches are noticeably different from one another, even as they share basic commitments and practices. I’ve been in many different churches in my lifetime, in a variety of countries around the world, some of them particularly impressive churches, and I could not help but notice how different they were from one another in a variety of ways, even though they were all faithful and fruitful Christian churches.

Our church for three years in Scotland was quite different from the churches of my childhood. It was distinguished by very long pastoral prayers, very long sermons – I mean very long sermons (sometimes two hours in length) – and a three hour prayer meeting on Saturday nights. It was a wonderfully warm and hospitable fellowship unusual in Scotland at that timeand exercised a wide-ranging influence throughout Scotland and the world. But as a matter of the pastor’s principle, there were no ministries targeting particular sections of the congregation: no youth group, no women’s group or men’s group, what they called Sunday School was what we would call children’s church. The church gathered twice on Sunday for worship, Wednesday night for a Bible study, and Saturday night for prayer. There were no small groups or community groups.

On the other hand, our highly influential congregation in downtown Manhattan, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, has but one formal gathering of the congregation each week, a single worship service, and that service is much shorter than any of the services at the church we attended in Scotland. But they have a very elaborate system of small groups that meet throughout the week. A very different ethos from that of Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, in part because the vast majority of the congregation in Manhattan are single adults, while Gilc was composed largely of families.

And, of course, we are well aware of how differently Christian churches organize their worship on the Lord’s Day, how differently they sing their praise to God, how differently they conduct ministry in the community and so on. Two of our large churches in the PCA were built in very different ways, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida by visitation evangelism and Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Alabama by neighborhood Bible studies. Neither was a feature of the establishment of Redeemer or Gilcomston. And so it goes. Florence and I worshipped in two different churches in Uganda a few years ago – one Presbyterian and one Anglican – and the services, while fine in many ways, were very different from one another.

But the NT makes very clear that whatever the differences there may be between Christian congregations, however they may reflect their culture or their historic moment or their pastor’s special interests or commitments, there are features that ought to be common to any and every Christian church. And there can be little doubt that Luke has given us a picture of the church in Antioch for this very reason, to serve as a model. Luke, as we have already said on several occasions, is writing his history selectively. He could hardly have told us everything and so he chose to tell us those things that would be perpetually important for Christians to know, an early church history that would best serve as an education in the faith, in both its doctrine and its practice. The church in Antioch is an education for every Christian congregation in what it means to be a faithful church, what every congregation should be committed to being and doing.

  • First, there was there an impressive zeal for winning the lost, for evangelism.

It is surely remarkable that so many believed in Antioch among those who spoke Greek and lived according to Greek ways. The gospel message was utterly unknown to most of these people. It was something they had never heard before. It was being proclaimed by Jews, who frankly were not the most popular people in the empire. And it concerned an amateur Jewish rabbi, hardly someone likely to impress such a sophisticated audience, a man without earthly prestige, political power, great wealth, or any literary accomplishment.

What is more, the message was profoundly counter-cultural. It was not only foreign to Greek thinking, it was heretical, if not ridiculous, by almost every standard of Greek thought. Redemption from the guilt of sin by a sacrificial death, monotheism, strict morality (including sexual morality)Antioch was famous in its day for its sexual licentiousness, the resurrection of the body to eternal life; these were not only not Greek ideas, they were the contradiction of virtually every principle of Greek thought!

But they believed nonetheless. Certainly we know why in the ultimate sense. God was at work by his Holy Spirit. The hand of the Lord was upon these Christian evangelists, as Luke says. But humanly speaking it was also the earnestness and the seriousness of the people who were spreading this message about Jesus, it was the character of their lives, it was their love for others that opened Gentile hearts to believe in Jesus.

How do we know this? Because “in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” Almost all scholars accept that the name was not invented by the Christians themselves. The fact that they were called Christians there for the first time suggests this. But so does the name itself, a name that suggests that the people who coined the term thought “Christ” was a proper name, rather than a title. The Jewish believers knew that Christ was a title, the designation of Jesus’ office as the Messiah; it was not really a name, as if Jesus were the man’s first name and Christ his surname, as if his parents were Mr. and Mrs. Christ. The unbelieving Jews would, of course, never have called him Jesus Christ because they denied that Jesus was the Christ or the Messiah. Jews would never have dignified the followers of Jesus by calling them Christians. It was the Gentiles in Antioch, who didn’t know better, who stuck the name on the new church.

People would ask, “Who are these people who just talked to us?” “Who are those men gathering a crowd in the corner of the market?” And the answer would come back, “They are the folk who are going on and on about Jesus of Nazareth, whom they call Christ.” Over time it was an easy step for the Antiochans to begin identifying them as “Christians.” All Antioch soon knew who Christians were and why they were called Christians. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great medieval saint, once wrote, “Satan will rise up in judgment against some people at the last day, because he had shown more zeal to ruin souls than they had to save them.” But he will not rise up against these Christians in Antioch. They spoke to so many and so often about Jesus Christ and salvation through faith in him that soon the whole city knew who Jesus was and why his followers loved him and trusted him and why they urged them to love and trust him too. Where did the name “Christian” come from? It came from a guileless, spontaneous, natural, heartfelt, and straightforward account of the good news, matched with an evident seriousness about the importance of believing in Jesus’ name.

Just imagine how those conversations started. “Have you heard about the troubles in Judea?” “Have you heard about Jesus, the miracle-worker who was crucified but rose from the dead?” “I used to think as you do, but let me tell you what changed my mind.”

I remember years ago, when a Godfather’s Pizza restaurant sat where Cutter’s Point now sits. I was sitting in a booth there sharing the gospel with a young fellow who had been to church several times. There was a girl, her name, I remember, was Vivien, sitting in the next booth and she had been listening to our conversation. She apparently didn’t think I was being as forceful with the young man as I should have been, so she stood up, came round to us, and gave it to my lunch-mate with both barrels. He was going to church for the wrong reasons, she said, – to get help with his problems – she had done that too. But she had found out that she was completely mistaken about what her real problem actually was. She needed to be born again, she needed an absolutely new beginning, and there was only one way to get that: by giving your life to Jesus Christ and following him. There were a lot of Viviens in Antioch in those early days of Christianity there!

  • Second, there was among the Christians in Antioch a desire to grow, to mature in the faith.

A message as radically new as the gospel was to Gentiles in Antioch took time and effort fully to absorb and fully to appreciate. It had implications for every part of one’s life and those implications had to be identified and understood. It would require changing their thinking and their living root and branch. And so the Christians there soaked up the teaching of Barnabas and Saul and others. For an entire year Saul and Barnabas taught the Christians there. No doubt they were evangelizing the unbelievers in the city as well, but they spent a great deal of time teaching and building up the believers. They had a lot to learn! They had an entire worldview to undo and replace. You remember that after Pentecost, when 3,000 new believers were added in a single day, the church in Jerusalem “devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching.” So did the believers in Antioch.

You may also remember that the man named Evangelist appears and speaks to Christian three times in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. He gives him the message that makes Christian a Christian at the beginning of the book, but he speaks to Christian twice more at important turning points early on in Christian’s pilgrimage. Bunyan was teaching us in that way that an evangelist’s work is not done when a profession of faith in Jesus Christ is made. That early faith must be protected, educated, nurtured, and strengthened. Here in Acts 11 as throughout Christian history we learn that the growth of the church should be measured in both numbers and spiritual and theological maturity. [Peterson, 355]

Listen to John Foxe, author of the famous Book of Martyrs, describe the village of Hadleigh in the days of the English Reformation, a village of weavers and farm workers, many of whom would have been new Christians. A great number of the parishioners of Hadleigh – which parish had a staunch reformer for its minister – Foxe says, “became exceedingly well learned in Holy Scriptures, as well women as men, so that a man might have found among them many [who] had often read the Bible through, and [who] could have said a great [selection] of St. Paul’s epistles by heart, and very well and readily have given a godly learned [opinion] in any matter of controversy. Their children and servants were also brought up and trained so diligently in the right knowledge of God’s Word, that the whole town seemed rather a university of the learned, than a town of cloth-making or laboring people.” [Cited in Dickens, English Reformation, 269-270]

There wasn’t among the Christians in Antioch or Hadleigh anyone like the famous American evangelist of the early 20th century, the former baseball player turned preacher, Billy Sunday, who once said, “I don’t know any more about theology than a jack rabbit knows about ping pong, but I’m on my way to glory!” These Christians wanted to know more theology, a lot more, and they waited upon their teachers to educate them. No doubt this is one of the ways the Jews and the Gentiles in that church overcame their differences: by their common commitment to the truth and their desire to know it inside and out. As the early American Presbyterian Archibald Alexander, once observed: “Nothing so binds a church together as a common love for her doctrines.”

  • Third, there was a sense among the members of the church in Antioch that they belonged to something far larger than themselves. As a church they were part of the Church.

We see this subtly but beautifully expressed in two ways in this paragraph. First the word “church” is used of both the congregation in Antioch and that in Jerusalem. The first we find in v. 22 when we read of the “church in Jerusalem” sending Barnabas to investigate. The second in v. 26 where the same term is used of the congregation in Antioch. For the first time we learn that Christians in various places can be called the church and that the term can be used of individual congregations as well as for the body of Christ in its entirety.

In the second place, we read in v. 29 that the disciples in Antioch sent relief aid to the brothers in Jerusalem. For Jewish and Gentile Christians to begin thinking of one another as “brothers,” marks an epoch in the history of redemption and an important moment in the history of the world. They thought of themselves as a single family, no matter their immense differences in language, culture, and history.

Every true and faithful Christian church will be like the Antioch church in this way as well; conscious of belonging to the church, the worldwide kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, in which all believers are brothers and sisters in a single household. As they were added to the church one by one and family by family by believing in Jesus, these Christians realized that they were being added to the same community to which the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem and Palestine belonged. And very soon these Christians in Antioch would be the impetus for the planting of churches in other territories, churches that they would also regard as part of themselves.

This is the attitude of every faithful Christian church, an attitude that does not rest in the mind but actively and energetically demands action. And that leads us to the fourth characteristic of the church in Antioch highlighted in Luke’s account.

  • It was a church committed to the support of the poor, to the ministry of charity.

We have already read how the Jerusalem church – at that time in much better financial shape – had quickly organized itself for the care of the poor believers among her membership – even creating a new office, that of deacon, to oversee that ministry. But now a new Gentile church follows suit. It was something Christian churches would always do. No doubt they were generous to outsiders in need of help; it was to be characteristic of early Christianity, this generosity to those in need. But first and foremost they cared for their own. No doubt this was in large part because of the teaching they were receiving – after all Barnabas was a man with a track record of generous giving for the sake of the poor – but such generosity is and has always been a Christian instinct. The Lord has been so generous to us in our need, we honor him and adorn our faith by being generous to others in imitation of him. What is more, we see our need in their need and remember how God’s love met our need.

Evangelism and charity have always belonged together, the one without the other is made weaker as a result; the two together make each ministry more powerful. And what a wonderfully unifying effect their charity to the poor in Jerusalem must have had. The gospel had come to the Gentiles in Antioch from the Jews, and love and care was sent back to the Jews in reply. These Christians in Antioch were like the church father Origen, of whom it was said, “As his doctrine so was his life, and as his life, so also was his doctrine. That is how, through God’s grace, he induced many to imitate him.”

Now no doubt there were problems in the church in Antioch. Surely they too had to deal with some cross-grained Christian folk, no doubt people didn’t always see eye to eye about everything, some perhaps preferred one teacher to another and said so, some who began didn’t continue, and so on. But what we are being told here and shown here is that if a church, if a congregation of Christians is zealous to make the good news known to others; if it is a community of people eager to grow in the Lord and is maturing in its faith; if it is a congregation that senses its unity with the larger church and practices that unity in practical ways; and if its love for God and others is demonstrated in charity and practical care, that church will be known as a community of Christians, Christians as Christians ought to be. It will be for those things that such a church will be known, it will be for those things for which it gains its reputation and its influence.

Faith Presbyterian, I’m grateful to be able to say, is like that church in all four of those ways; but no one who knows us from the inside out doesn’t think we can be much more like the church in Antioch than we are. And to be more like that church would be an altogether wonderful thing! For ourselves, for the unbelievers around us, and for the entire church of God!