Acts: For the Cause of Christ #18
Title: Changes in the Church
Last time we looked at Peter’s ministry as he traveled from town to town. We saw his faithfulness to the pocket churches in the region near Jerusalem, such as Lydda and Joppa. We looked at the miracles the Lord did through Peter to bring more people to a saving knowledge of Jesus. Then we looked at how the Lord used Peter to bring the gospel to the Gentiles by preparing both Peter and Cornelius for the encounter. This week as we continue in Acts, we see the reception of this new in Jerusalem and then the expansion of the gospel for the Gentiles as Barnabas and Saul return to the narrative.
1. Peter’s Explanation – vv 1-18
We don’t know how long Peter stayed with Cornelius, at the end of chapter 10 we are told he was asked to stay a few days, but we don’t know what that looked like. However long Peter stayed in Caesarea to help ground the new converts, word of Peter staying with Gentiles, and baptizing them had gotten back to Jerusalem and caused some concern within the church.
So when Peter returns, members of the church, that seem to be more traditional [let the word hang a second] or zealous for continuing to follow the Law wanted answers. How could Peter, a Jew and a leader of the Apostles, have socialized or baptized Gentiles? At least the Samaritans had some Jewish heritage so their conversion seemed somewhat natural. At the same time we get a glance into how the church in Jerusalem functioned, as those with questions did not hesitate to go to Peter to understand what he had done, and Peter, in turn, did not issue an authoritarian edict that he could do what he wanted simply because he was an Apostle.
Peter recounts what happened beginning with his vision in Joppa. Peter is making it clear that what happened wasn’t his idea, but God’s leading from start to finish. God sent Peter a vision, God sent and angel to Cornelius, and the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles in Cornelius’ home just as He had done at Pentecost for the Jewish believers. Those questioning Peter could see that God had willed this to happen. They become silent, possibly in awe thinking of how everything they knew was now changing, then they glorified God realizing that God had given salvation to the Gentiles as well.
Later the Apostle Paul will write how Jews and Gentiles are each part of the unified church, the body of Christ (Eph 2:11-3:12), but right now in Acts 11, this “mystery”, as Paul put it, hadn’t been fully revealed yet. The church was concerned, some may say rightly so, after all “they’ve never done it that way before”. Peter had showed them that God was the one working the Gentiles into the church, Peter was just the servant God used to bring the Gentiles in.
Sometimes change is needed. Sometimes change is good. This was a change for the church, that no one in Jerusalem seemed to be expecting, but it is what the Lord had brought about. Are there things in your life that needed changing? We all need to ask ourselves are there things the Lord wants us to change in our daily walk with Him? Is there something in our church that needs to change? As I was thinking about this, the old joke about changing a light bulb came to mind, so I did some looking for it online and found several variations. One web page is here. My point is, if we are certain the Lord is leading us to make a change, and I’m not talking about light bulbs, then we had better make the change. Change can be difficult and painful. Our sister church in Rochester is changing the way somethings are being done, and their pastor admits it is kinda painful as they make these changes like his best friend he had in the church has left and won’t talk to him any longer; but their leadership feels these things need to change. We need to look at our lives, our church, and prayer that God directs us in a way that is clear.
2. The Church in Antioch – vv 19-30
Let’s take a minute to talk about Antioch. Luke is often very specific about cities and towns where the action is, and I think it is important for us to understand what the city was like and why the gospel’s impact was so profound. First you need to know that there are two cities named Antioch mention in Acts. The one we are looking at today is Antioch in Syria. This is no small town in the middle of nowhere of the Roman Empire. This city was considered the third largest in the Empire, after Alexandria in Egypt and Rome itself. Antioch was a commercial city as it was tied to a fertile plain and the river that ran through the city led to a port on the Mediterranean about fifteen miles away. Antioch was a cultural mixing pot as well as its population was filled with Greeks, Syrians, Phoenicians, Jews, Arabs, Persians, Egyptians, and Indians. The city of Daphne which held temples for Artemis, Apollo, and Astarte and their immoral cultic worship was only five miles from Antioch, “and so the area was known for its moral laxity (Bock, Darrell L., BECNT:Acts © 2007, p 413)”. Other pagan temples known to be in Antioch were those to Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, Adonis, and Tyche. The Jewish community was rather large and was really the only segment of the population with the monotheistic worship of the true God.
This was the culture that many believers entered when they fled Jerusalem because of the persecution in 8:1. These disciples had fled north, made it to the Phoenician area (Tyre and Sidon were the major cities), as well as the island of Cyprus and the metropolis of Antioch. These disciples were doing what they saw and did in Jerusalem, they started giving the gospel message to the Jewish community. Luke then tells us that some men, we do not have their names, change tactics and start reaching out to the Greeks (or Gentiles) in Antioch as well, and as we mentioned earlier, there was no shortage of Gentiles in the city. This was blessed by the Lord as Luke uses a the phrase, “The Lord’s hand was with them”. God’s hand represents God’s power, this phrase is found in the OT, such as Ex 9:3, 1 Sam 5:6; 6:9; 1 Chr 28:19 and others. The Lord enabled these disciples to preach and for their listeners to turn and believe. Verse 21, is the only verse to use both turn and believe to show a response in faith.
News of the Gentiles coming to Christ in Antioch had reached Jerusalem. As the church had done with the Samaritans by sending Peter and John, they sent a delegate to investigate and confirm the reports. This time the church sent Barnabas. The news of Antioch probably came after Peter’s trip to Caesarea and his explanation. Barnabas was a Jew from Cyprus originally, and could encourage the new believers and the growing church. Verse 24 gives us a reminder of his character of being a good man and full of the Holy Spirit and faith, this is probably part of the reason he was sent to Antioch. We see that he finds that God’s grace had been working on the Gentiles, so living true to his name again, he encouraged the church to remain true to the Lord. Remember this area is as bad as Corinth with its immoral behaviors and religions, so Barnabas’ encouragement was probably needed. The church in Antioch was still growing.
It is possible that Barnabas saw that the church needed more leadership to help ground it in the faith and doctrine. Barnabas goes to Tarsus to get Saul and bring him back to Antioch. As far as the time frame in history, it is thought this is between 42 and 43 AD. If Acts opens roughly in 30 AD, then Luke as covered 12-13 years between chapter 1 and the church in Antioch being established. We are told here in verse 26 that Barnabas and Saul teach large numbers for a full year. Then Luke drops a piece of trivia into the account here, the term Christian was first used to describe the disciples here in Antioch.
Famine Relief vv 27-30
The church in Antioch remains connected to the “mother church” in Jerusalem. From Jerusalem prophets came to Antioch. We are not told if they came under the influence of the Spirit, on their own, or sent by the Jerusalem Church. This is the first mention of NT prophets in Acts. Paul letters will discuss the gift of prophecy later on, but it seems to be similar to the gift of tongues as it was under the inspiration of God, except it appears that the gift uses the speaker’s known language. It also seems that the NT prophet had a two fold job of forth-telling as well as the occasional fore-telling as we see here. One of the prophets that came to Antioch was Agabus. This man will make another appearance to give Paul a personal prophecy in Acts 21:10. Right now Agabus is predicting, under the inspiration of the Spirit that a severe famine would go throughout the known Roman World. Luke remarks that this famine happened under the rule Emperor Claudius who rule from AD 41-54. History tells us that Claudius’ reign was plagued with successive droughts and bad harvests. Rome, Greece, Egypt and Judea all suffered as a result.
How the church in Antioch understood how the the famine would affect the Judean region is not known. We do, however, know that Judea suffered from a famine between AD 44-48. The Antioch Church decided to to organize some sort of relief fund for their follow Christians in Jerusalem. There is no record of an organized community of goods in Antioch as in the early days in Jerusalem, but we are told that each member decided to give an amount that they could. This seems to be similar to the instructions Paul gives the Corinthian church for a later relief fund for Jerusalem in 1 Cor 16:1-4. Once the fund was ready to be sent, the church selected Barnabas and Saul to carry the funds to Jerusalem. At Jerusalem, the funds were given to the elders of the church. We are starting to see the less of the Apostles leadership in Judean churches and more of elders and leaders that seem to be selected from their members; it is also possible that the Apostles are inferred as part of these Elders, but we don’t know for sure. It is possible the Apostles are spending less time in Jerusalem by this time, going on itinerant travels as we saw Peter do in chapter 9. This is the first mention of Christian Elders in Acts, it is thought that since the dispersion from the persecution that the Elders are taking more responsibilities as the seven chosen in 6:5 are no longer in Jerusalem, so some sort of reorganization took place.
In this section we saw how God used people to start another church in another city. For Acts, this is the furthering of the Gospel of Jesus Christ out to the world. The Gentiles have been grafted into God’s plan as the church expands beyond Judaism. God led people to establish a church in a major commercial hub and cosmopolitan center in the crossroads where east meets west. We saw how the right people are needed in churches to ensure that the doctrine is taught and to establish a strong faithful church, no matter where the church is planted. Barnabas knew he needed help, so he went for Saul who could teach in this new church. God sent prophets to the church to assist in the new church’s establishment.
We also saw how, though separated by distance, the church in Antioch knew they needed to assist the churches in Judea suffering from the prophesied famine. They showed their compassion and their love for their brothers and sisters in Christ.
So how are we doing? The church had to change and it may have been difficult, we will see that the changes will be difficult further in Acts. If changes happen how will we react? If the Lord is preparing us for changes are we are ready?
Changes come in different ways. Sometimes it is a matter of having the right people in the right place. Sometimes it is growing the church to get the right people. How are we doing? Compassion for other church members, other Christians is part of being a disciple of Jesus. Jesus said in John 13:34-35, “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Even in the midst of change, Christlike love is to be a part of our life and walk. Are we known by our love for one another?