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"They Were First Called Christians in Antioch"
Wednesday Evening Home Bible Study
June 11, 2008
Theme: Luke shows us how the message of Jesus Christ began to spread into the Gentile world.
Acts 10:1-11:18 told us the story of how God laid the foundations for a ministry of the gospel to the Gentile world. God made it clear to Peter that he was to now consider all people groups free to be recipients of the message of His grace through Christ; and it was in this spirit that the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius heard the gospel and believed.
Peter was used by God to begin the work (Acts 15:7). It wasn't, however, Peter's primary call to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. His call was to the "circumcised" (Galatians 2:8). The work of preaching Christ to the Gentiles was a ministry unto which God had clearly set apart Saul of Tarsus (9:15-16).
In this portion of Acts, we see not only how God progressively brought Saul (later, Paul) into the work of ministering to the Gentile world; but also how the gospel began its spread north from the Jewish world and into Europe. Here, for the first time in all history, we find that believers were called "Christians".
I. THE GOSPEL IS SPREAD TO THE GENTILES IN ANTIOCH (vv. 19-21).
A. The context of this passage is the persecution that began after the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1-4). Those who had been scattered because of the persecution traveled to the surrounding regions beyond Judea and Samaria (Acts 1:8). Some went as far as Phonecia—northwest of Galilee. Others went to Cyprus—the large island off the coast of Syria (a significant island to our story, because it was from there that Barnabas came; see Acts 4:36). And still others traveled north to the city of Syrian Antioch. This is a significant city, because it was the third largest city in the ancient Roman empire.
B. Originally, those who traveled to these regions only preached to the Jewish people who lived there. This was in keeping not only with the emphasis of the gospel—that it was for the Jew first (Romans 1:16); but was also in keeping with the pattern we find Paul using in his ministry. He would make it his policy (see Acts 17:1-2) to go first to the Jewish synagogues to present the gospel; and would only turn to the Gentiles after the Jews had rejected his message. This is what he did in his ministries to Cyprus (Acts 13:5), Pysidian Antioch (13:14), Iconium (14:1), Thessalonica (17:1-3), Berea (17:10), Corinth (18:4), and Ephesus (18:19); and it is even reflected in his actions at his arrival in Rome (28:17ff). But some of the scattered disciples who came to Antioch— specifically men from such diverse places as Cyprus (off the coast of Syria) and Cyrene (on the northern tip of Libya in North Africa)—preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to the "Hellenists" (i.e., "Grecians", in the King James Version) who lived there. These Hellenists were not Greek speaking Jews, as in Acts 6:1; because they are being distinguished from the Jews who are mentioned in Acts 11:19.
C. This is clearly a bold move—no doubt inspired by the Lord's words in Acts 1:8; and also by the remarkable experience of Peter in 10:1-11:18. But as bold a move as it may have seemed to be, it's clear that the Lord placed His blessing on it (v. 21). As a result, we're told that "a great number believed and turned to the Lord". This becomes the first time that the gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed in an established city of the Roman empire.
II. THE ANTIOCHIAN BELIEVERS WERE STRENGTHENED BY BARNABAS (vv. 22-24).
A. Such amazing news couldn't help but reach the Jewish believers in Judea. It "came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem" (v. 22); and as a result, they sent the remarkable leader Barnabas to "go as far as Antioch". We've already met this man as one who was called Joses; but who later came to be called "Son of Encouragement" (Acts 4:36). He was a man outstanding in his generosity; and who also lived up to his name, because he was the one who stepped in and introduced the controversial young convert Saul to the church (Acts 9:27). He and Paul formed the first missionary team in church history. Luke describes him for us in verse 24 as "a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith"; so it's no wonder that the church felt it right to send him to assist in this remarkable new work among the Gentiles.
B. When Barnabas came, he was greatly encouraged by what he saw. He saw the manifest grace of God at work among the Gentile people of Antioch (v. 23)—no doubt observing first hand the "hand of the Lord" at work among them. He also encouraged them all that "with purpose" or "with resoluteness" of heart to "continue with the Lord". It wasn't felt that the work that God was doing was something for the believers in Jerusalem to simply stand by and watch. God was clearly on the move in the Gentile world in Antioch; and they went to were God was working, and joined in to establish the new believers in the faith. As a result, Luke tells us in verse 24 that "many people were added to the Lord".
III. BARNABAS BRINGS SAUL TO THE ANTIOCHIAN MINISTRY (vv. 25-26).
A. Barnabas was a wise man. He not only knew that this new work was something greater than he could do alone, but he also knew who it was that God had appointed to it. We find in Acts 22:21 that Saul was, to some degree, already at work among the Gentiles at this point—most likely in Tarsus. And so, Barnabas departed from the vital work in Antioch in order to find Saul and bring him to Antioch with him as a ministry partner. We should forever be grateful to Barnabas for sharing the work in this way; because that decision has made history!
B. Finding Saul and brining him to Antioch, Barnabas and Saul remained "assembled" with the Antiochian believers for a whole year—teaching a great many of them. The impact of this year-long ministry is demonstrated in the fact that, in this strategic cultural center in the Roman empire first, the believers came to be known as "Christians". It may be that the name itself was originally intended as an insult (Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). The historian Tacitus, in explaining how Nero sought to get attention off himself in the fire of Rome, wrote that "to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace" (Tacitus, Annuls 15.44). But however the name came to be, it was an honor to bear the name of Christ. And it first came to be that the believers were called "Christians" in Antioch.
IV. THE ANTIOCHIAN BELIEVERS MINISTER TO THE JUDEAN BELIEVERS THROUGH THE HANDS OF BARNABAS AND SAUL (vv. 27-30).
A. These early Christians also acted true to their name—which means "little Christ-like ones". Some prophets came in those days from Jerusalem to Antioch; and while there, one of them named Agabus stood up and showed by the Holy Spirit that a great famine was going to come upon all the inhabited world (and we can assume this means the inhabited world of the Roman Empire). This man Agabus makes another appearance in the life of Paul in Acts 21:10-11). This "famine" occurred under the reign of Caesar Claudius (41-54 A.D.); and since Herod (who we read about in Acts 12) died in 44 A.D., we can assume that this great famine (or perhaps a series of localized famines) occurred at about that time.
B. The hearts of the disciples in Antioch were moved with love for their Jewish brethren, from whom they gained so much (Romans 16:25-27), and who were most likely particularly subject to hardship during such a time. And so, as according to each one's ability, they raised support for them (acting very much like the Jewish Christians first acted in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35). The elders of the church (and note that there were elders at this point in the Jerusalem church) chose to send it by the hands of their trusted servants Barnabas and Saul.
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In a sense, the church is shown here to come full circle. It began in Jerusalem and spread to the remotest parts of the earth. And it was from the remote parts of the earth that the Gentile Christians lovingly ministered to their Jewish brethren in Jerusalem!
From this point on in the story, the center of the church's world-wide mission shifts from Jerusalem to Antioch.
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