Acts Lesson Twenty-four: Acts 11:19-30 – The Church in Antioch

19 Those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, Cypriot and Cyrenian men, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Hellenists, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 Then the report about them was heard by the church that was at Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to travel as far as Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged all of them to remain true to the Lord with a firm resolve of the heart, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And large numbers of people were added  to the Lord. 25 Then he went to Tarsus to search for Saul, 26 and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. 

27 In those days some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine throughout the Roman world. This took place during the time of Claudius. 29 So each of the disciples, according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brothers who lived in Judea. 30 They did this, sending it to the elders by means of Barnabas and Saul. (HCSB)

I’ll split this lesson into two parts.

  • The church at Antioch – verses 19-26.
  • The Gentiles provide aid to the church at Jerusalem – verses 27-30.

The Church at Antioch

Before we dig into this passage, let’s take a look at the city of Antioch, the focus of the first part of the passage. Here are some facts, historical and cultural, that are pertinent to the understanding of the passage.

  • Founded in 300 b.c. by the first Seleucid ruler, Seleucus Nicator.
  • The population was approximately 500,000 people.
  • There was a sizable Jewish population, estimated between 25,000 and 50,000 people.
  • It was the third-largest city in the Roman Empire, behind Rome and Alexandria.
  • It was known as “Antioch the Golden, Queen of the East.”
  • It was a planned city, laid out in a grid pattern.
  • Its main street was over four miles long.
    • Paved with marble.
    • Lined on both sides by marble colonnades.
    • It was the only city in the ancient world at the time that had its streets lighted at night.
  • It had a busy port.
  • It was a center for luxury and culture.
  • It attracted a multitude of different people, including wealthy retired Roman officials.
  • It was a wicked city.
    • Possibly only Corinth was worse.
    • Greek, Roman, and Syrian deities were honored.
    • The local shrine was dedicated to Daphne, whose worship included immoral practices.
  • Despite all the challenges, it presented an exciting opportunity for evangelism.

The persecution that the early church faced, in this passage linked to Stephen, we see that instead of suppressing the advance of the Gospel, it actually enhanced its spread. The believers who were spread across the region weren’t shy or restrained in speaking about Jesus. This opportunity for evangelism led to “a large number who believed turned to the Lord.” 

The news of the large numbers of converts made its way back to the main church in Jerusalem and its leaders. They understood and accepted their responsibility to lead and shepherd the flock, wherever they might be scattered. In this case, it was the church at Antioch. The Jerusalem church commissioned Barnabas to go to Antioch and oversee the believers living there. If we remember back to the lesson that covered Acts 4:36, we’ll recall that Barnabas was nicknamed “son of encouragement,” the perfect choice to encourage and shepherd this new congregation.

How did Barnabas encourage this new church?

  • He was glad about what he saw. Whether or not they worshipped in the same way as the church in Jerusalem isn’t known, nor is it relevant. What Barnabas did see was a group of believers who were genuine in their love and worship of God.
  • He emphasized their “heart condition” as he taught them. To remain “true to the Lord” includes the following:
    • Loving God.
    • Walking as He walks.
    • Obeying what is contained in His Word.
    • Selflessly serving Him.

What were the results of Barnabas’ shepherding efforts?

  • The evangelism and witness of the believers made a significant impact in the city of Antioch.
    • Large numbers of people were added to the Lord.
    • When believers are firmly rooted in the Word, their witness will have an impact. Each church needs to have balance.
      • Between edification and evangelism.
      • Between worship and witness.
      • Between teaching and testifying.
  • The growth of the church meant that Barnabas needed help in shepherding the flock.
    • However, he needed someone to help with a Gentile congregation.
    • Barnabas immediately thought of Paul.
      • We recall that Barnabas had befriended Paul in Acts 9.
      • Barnabas knew about Paul’s commission to the Gentiles, Acts 9:15.
      • We can safely conclude that the two discussed Paul’s calling to the Gentiles on numerous occasions during their time together.
    • About ten years had passed from the point Paul had been converted to the time Barnabas brought him back to Antioch. Scripture doesn’t tell us precisely what he was doing, but we can infer some events.
      • He was likely evangelizing both Jews and Gentiles.
      • He may have founded the churches in Cilicia during this time; Acts 15:23, 41 and Galatians 1:21.
      • He may have experienced some of the sufferings listed in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28.

What we see Barnabas do is something all churches should do. Leaders and mature believers placing newer/less mature believers in positions of serving. This enables them to grow in their maturity and take on more significant roles in the future. Instead of the pastor/elder or deacons doing the work in the church, it is the responsibility of each member to contribute to their local congregation.

The first section of this week’s passage includes the term “Christian.” This term is found in only three places in the New Testament.

  • Here in Acts 11:26.
  • Acts 26:28.
  • 1 Peter 4:16.

Some things to note about the term “Christian.”

  • The term was not originally used by Christians to describe themselves. They preferred other names.
    • Believer.
    • Disciple.
    • Brother/sister.
  • The first extensive use of the term by a Christian writer was by Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, around the beginning of the second century.
  • It was actually made as a derisive label, combining two words.
    • The Latin suffix “ian” means “belonging to the party of.” 
    • Some of the pagan citizens of Antioch joined this with the Hebrew name “Christ” and came up with Christian.
  • The use of the new label would indicate a third group apart from Jews and Gentiles. 
  • This indicates that Christians were no longer viewed as a segment of Judaism. Instead, they had now become a distinct and separate group in the region.
  • This presented two problems.
    • Christians would lose the protection Rome gave to a religio licita or a legitimate and legally recognized religion. While under the umbrella of Judaism, they enjoyed this protection. Now, it had been removed.
    • How should Christians view the hope of Israel and the promises of Jewish Scripture?
    • These two problems would loom over them as the Christian mission moved increasingly onto Gentile soil.
  • The term itself has lost most of its meaning to those who allegedly are followers of Jesus.
    • It no longer means that a person has turned from sin and trusted in Jesus.
    • It no longer means that they’ve received salvation by grace.
    • Many call themselves Christians:
      • Even though they’ve never been born again.
      • Because they don’t view themselves as pagans.
      • Because they were born into a Christian family.
      • Because they attend church.
      • Because they volunteer at church.
      • Because they give to the church.
    • The only authentic way to become a Christian is to repent from sin and place your faith in Jesus.

Gentiles Provide Aid to the Church in Jerusalem

Let’s look at some things we can discern from this small section.

  • The prophets mentioned in verse 27 were Christians ministering to the local assemblies, teaching and revealing the Word of God. 
  • Because they made the trip from Jerusalem to Antioch, not a short journey at that time, we can infer that there was some type of close relationship between the two churches. 
  • We are introduced to Agabus.
    • He had the gift of foretelling, predicting the famine in this narrative.
    • He also manifested this gift again in Acts 21:10-11 when he prophesied that Paul would be arrested in Jerusalem.
  • There was a widespread famine.
    • This occurred during the time of Claudius, who was the emperor from A.D. 41-54.
    • The Jewish historian Josephus recorded that many died because of a lack of food.
    • The impact of the famine on the church underscores a shift that has occurred in the Jerusalem church.
      • In Acts 2-7, the church at Jerusalem didn’t have any needs; they were blessed.
      • Now the Jerusalem church needed outside assistance.

When we look back at the pattern for giving in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:31-35, we see a spirit of giving that was descriptive for that time. In verse 29, we now see a pattern of giving that I believe is prescriptive for the New Testament church.

  • The believers didn’t have “all things in common.”
  • Each gave according to their ability.
    • In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul says that if anyone doesn’t provide support for their own, they are worse than a pagan.
    • In 2 Corinthians 9:7, Paul says that we should give as our heart leads us, not out of compulsion.
    • Everyone contributed.

We also see a transition in leadership structure in verse 30. In previous sections of Acts, the gifts were laid at the feet of the Apostles. Now, we see the relief aid being given by Barnabas and Paul to the elders of the Jerusalem church. Let’s have a quick look at the term “elder.”

  • The Greek term is presbyteros
  • It is a person of responsibility and authority in socio-religious matters.
  • This is the first time the term is used in Acts.
  • They were mature believers who had spiritual oversight of the ministry.
    • 1 Peter 5:1.
    • 2 John 1.
  • Comparing Acts 20:17, 28 to Titus 1:5, 7, we see that an elder and bishop are equivalent.
    • They were the pastors of the flocks.
    • They were assisted by deacons.
    • The qualifications for both are found in 1 Timothy 3.

Applications

  • Although we may come from different denominational backgrounds and may worship differently or have different doctrinal beliefs, we should have grace and acceptance on the “minors” of the faith (method baptism for believers, style of worship, song choices, etc.) while having unwavering unity on the “majors” (salvation by faith, Jesus as the Son of God, lived a sinless life, born of a virgin, raised on the third day, etc.). 
  • Don’t try to do it all yourself; enlist the aid of qualified helpers. We see that in Barnabas’ actions. If he was selfish, he could’ve tried to oversee the church at Antioch himself. Instead, sensing a great work of God, he went to get Paul to help him. Whatever ministry we are involved in, we need to remember it’s not ours, it is God’s ministry.
  • We should be generous according to our ability to help our brothers and sisters in their time of need. This is an obligation clearly laid out in Scripture. We need to examine our heart and make sure we are giving freely and cheerfully, not out of some motivation of selfishness or attempt to gain attention by the size of our gift.

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