Acts 11:19–30 . . .
“The First Gentile Church”
In last week's summary of Acts 11:1–18, Luke portrayed Peter as a man who found himself in “hot water,” being “called on the carpet” for evangelizing Gentiles. Today we'll look more closely at the techniques and results of the continued evangelism efforts of Barnabas, Saul, and prophets from Jerusalem.
We're now going to see an example of impressive church growth. From a small group of persecuted refugees, the church in Antioch saw large numbers of people come to Christ. In fact, three times Luke will underscore these large numbers (vv. 21, 24, 26). But the reason this church experienced such remarkable growth wasn't that the leaders employed the latest church growth principles. Neither did they study Antioch's demographics and come up with a strategy to market the church to the masses. Rather, the reason for the growth was simple: “The hand of the Lord was with them” (v. 21). This was a church that God continued to bless. That should be our aim, also, that the hand of the Lord would be with each of us.
The Germination of the Church (11:19–21)
Who did God use in planting the church? Acts 11:19 (shown below) picks up from Acts 8:1, 4. Luke dropped the account for a time to flesh out the stories of Philip, Saul, and Cornelius. Now he's picking it back up. Some spoke the word to Jews in Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. Others spoke to Greek-speaking Gentiles. Notice that no one is ever named by Luke. The identity of the people who were preaching doesn’t matter. What matters is that God used people to testify to others to raise up a dynamic church.
What was the result of this first church plant? Verse 21 tells us that "a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” Later, after Barnabas came from Jerusalem, we see in v. 24 that “a great many people were brought to the Lord.” Later still, when Barnabas and Saul diligently taught new saints, Luke acclaims in v. 26, “for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.” The message is clear — the church in Antioch became very large.
We aren't given any specific numbers for this first Gentile church the way we were for the Jerusalem Church. This new church was large; many people had been saved and were growing in their faith. This church didn't become large by embellishing the truth. No, it had excellent faithful teachers in Barnabas and Saul. It grew large because God was actively saving many people. The church was germinated in Antioch because a bunch of hearty nobodies dared to preach about Lord Jesus, and the Lord's hand was with them.
Two very different kinds of people fled from Jerusalem. They ended up in places that could rightly be called “heathen.” The gospel was clearly inside Gentile territory now, and the world would never be the same, nor would the Church. Group 1 is made up of those — likely the vast majority — who went from Jerusalem and Judea into the world, speaking the word to Jews only.
In contrast to this larger Group 1, made up of those who kept their faith to themselves and within Judaism, Luke tells of those in a smaller group. It was Group 2 who purposely evangelized the Greeks, thereby eventually bringing about the birth of the church at Antioch. That church was to become a dominant, driving force in the world of that day and for centuries thereafter.
Jerusalem’s Response to Antioch’s Acceptance of the Gospel (vv. 22–26)
What's needed for a church's spiritual growth? Gifted men are the answer. In these five verses, Luke introduces us to three men whom God used to help this brand-new church germinate, grow, and flourish: Barnabas, Saul, and Agabus. Notice that God didn’t expect new believers to learn “directly from Jesus.” Instead, he provided them with believers who'd been walking with Jesus for many years and knew his truth. It was they who were to teach and exhort them. God’s normal way of bringing spiritual maturation is through the gifts of other mature believers.
In vv. 22–26, we see a positive form of leadership being taken by the apostles in Jerusalem. Thus, the church was edified and blessed; many others were brought to faith in Jesus the Messiah. The response of the apostles and the Jerusalem Church to the conversion of the Gentiles in Antioch was largely the result of Peter's going to Cornelius' house, as well as the decision the church made after it “called Peter on the carpet” for his actions.
As a result of Peter's efforts, the Jerusalem Church was able to not only accept the salvation of these Gentiles at Antioch but the birth of a church there. In response, they sent Barnabas to Antioch as their representative, in much the same way they'd sent Peter and John to Samaria (8:14).
Why do you think Barnabas, rather than one of the twelve apostles, was sent to Antioch? Quite possibly, Barnabas, as a representative of Jerusalem, was sent to the new believers in Antioch to carry out a God-given leadership role over the church at large. Barnabas, unlike most of the apostles, was raised in a culture similar to that of the Antiochians; he also spoke their language. In addition, the church that had been planted in Antioch was founded by Hellenistic Jews. As a result, it might be an affront to them and to their ministry to send “native Hebrews” to Antioch to inspect their work and oversee it. Most probably, Barnabas was a man of godly character and spiritual vitality and power, i.e., the best man for the job (v. 24).
All in all, Barnabas was the most highly qualified man in every area from the standpoints of (1) his culture and background, (2) his character, and (3) his supernatural spiritual enablement and control. It was Barnabas's character that Luke emphasized; it wasn't his methodology or technique.
Why would Barnabas, in v. 25, seek out Saul to help in this ministry? For starters, he realized that there were way too many people for him to be able to effectively minister to and shepherd. For another, he knew that Saul was the man that this church needed. Add to that the fact that Saul was fluent in the Greek language and culture. Furthermore, he was specifically called by God to bring the gospel to the Gentiles (9:15) and had a rare gift of teaching, which is exactly what these new believers needed.
Saul had been walking with Jesus for about nine or ten years at this point. Jesus had given him wonderful revelation and he was bursting to share it with the multitudes. The Lord was going to use this time in Barnabas and Saul’s lives to prepare them both for their upcoming mission that we'll explore in chapter 13. The two had learned to minister together as a team, submit to one another, and teach God's Word to the Gentile audience.
Luke makes a seemingly incidental statement in v. 26: "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch." We should know Luke well enough by now to realize that he doesn't waste his words. His statement has a purpose. The people of Antioch recognized the fact that their church was distinct from Judaism, that Israel and the church were different. Antiochians recognized the reality that had begun to take place: that the church was a new entity, distinct from Judaism, and that the one unifying element was Christ. That pagan city saw what many still hadn't recognized: The church was a separate entity, a body that was united in and by Christ, belonged to him, and was neither Jewish nor Gentile. How significant was Luke's brief statement!
Enter Agabus (vv. 27–28)
Don’t miss the plurality of v. 27's "some prophets." These prophets, who'd come from Jerusalem, traveled to Antioch, hoping to use their gift of prophecy so they could be a blessing to this new church in Antioch. There's an important principle here: A plurality ensures that there will be mutual accountability and submission among leaders, which is imperative for healthy church life.
The Holy Spirit had given Agabus the gift of prophecy: He foretold a great famine. (Josephus records a severe famine in Judea during Claudius’s reign in which many people died lacking money to buy what little food was available.) The purpose of this gift was to reveal something that was about to take place, so that, in this case, the church body could make necessary preparations to help one another when times got really bad.
What was the result of Agabus's ministry? The church took note of Agabus's timely prophecy. It collected a generous offering that helped the poor brethren in Jerusalem where the famine was to hit the hardest. His prophetic ministry was an important gift to the church, enabling it to do the will of God at a particularly critical point in time. The gift of prophecy is an important gift today!
Church Fruit (vv. 29–30)
After a plant has germinated and grown to a considerable size, if it's healthy, it'll bear fruit. It's no different for the Church of Jesus. What was the fruit that Luke tells us the church in Antioch had been able to bear? The answer is great stewardship and generous giving.
How much did they give? Each man gave "according to his ability." Those with more gave more; those with less gave less. There was no requisite percentage of giving. (Tithing was an Old Testament practice, given by God to take care of the Levites. It wasn't brought into the New Testament.) But, if we look at our giving as a required percentage, we'll have entirely missed the point. Giving is not a duty that we have to perform in order to be “good Christians.” It's a privilege that we receive with joy. The object shouldn’t be to meet a minimum standard; the object should be to see how much of our income and possessions we're able to give. That's the essence of good stewardship! We should ask God what he wants us to do with his money.
Who gave? Everyone gave! None were excluded; no one excluded him- or herself. The same is true today. God’s will is for every child of God to be a generous giver.
Why did they give? They gave to send relief to the brothers living in Judea (Romans 15:27). The church in Jerusalem had ministered to them by sending Barnabas, Agabus, and other prophets who strengthened them spiritually. It was only reasonable for them to reciprocate and bless them materially.
How did they send their gift? They entrusted it to Barnabas and Saul who delivered it to the elders. They were wise about it; Barnabas and Saul had proven themselves to be men of integrity among them; they could be trusted to deliver it safely. Barnabas and Saul were wise enough to know that this gift needed to be entrusted to the elders, who'd wisely dispense it to people in need.
So, Antioch is set before us as an example: It was a church founded by simple believers who knew that God calls every Christian to serve him; its believers proclaimed the gospel as God's gift of salvation for everyone who'd believe; they operated through God’s grace, not legalism; and they saw grace as the motivation to rely on the Lord.
Their church's leaders set the example by teaching them God’s Word. And all were generous givers, trusting God to meet their needs. Because "the Lord's hand was with them," significant numbers of people, in and around neighboring communities, were brought closer to the Lord.
Let's get personal! The Lord uses many people and many gifts in his Church's planting, growing, and bearing fruit, e.g., preaching, teaching, exhortation, and prophecy. Be like these unnamed preachers, or like Barnabas, Saul, and Agabus. Use your spiritual gifts to benefit others. Pour yourself out for your brethren. Find someone who needs your encouragement, your generosity, your instruction, your timely word, . . . then make your wise investment in them.
- Q. 1 Why (biblically) is evangelism every church member’s responsibility?
- Q. 2 For a church to grow spiritually, what or who is needed?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 11.]
† Watch this video clip of Acts 11:10–12:25, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
The Church in Antioch
19Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
22News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
25Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
27During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.