11/11/01 10.45 a.m. Acts 11:19-26 "One in name"
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. 20 Some 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. 21T he Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. 22 News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and 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.
A fortnight ago gunmen burst into a church in Pakistan with AK47 assault rifles, killed the minister, then turned the guns on the congregation including women and children killing a further 14 and injuring 30 others, some gravely. Although Christians have been influential in helping in areas such as education and health they are discriminated against. Those without land have to travel from place to place to get lowly paid jobs. The blasphemy law, which prescribes the mandatory death penalty for insulting the Prophet of Islam is abused. In July the High Court upheld the death sentence of Ayub Masis, a Christian accused of blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammed.
Persecution of Christians is wide-spread in the world today. It has been calculated that more Christians have been martyred in the last one hundred years than in all of the previous nineteen hundred.
Our reading today refers to the persecution of the early church that followed the stoning of Stephen in Chapter 7. Whilst this was not ideal, it did result in Christians moving out of Jerusalem and spreading the good news as they went. This shows that we have a sovereign God who is in control. If Jesus had been born before the Roman Empire the Christian faith would not have spread so easily or as quickly.
At this time Jews would travel from many countries to return for the Passover, merchants would utilize boats and the Roman roads to trade. Soldiers would travel throughout the Roman Empire from Britain in the North to Ethiopia in the South. So, with all this travel some news of the Christian faith had reached most of the Roman Empire by the end of the first century.
( Use O.H.P. of Eastern Mediterranean taken from the 'sonlight' maps from the brilliant, free, e-sword Bible Study software at http://www.e-sword.net/ )
Verse 19 states that they travelled some distance: to
Phoenicia. A country about 15 miles wide and 120 miles long stretching along the northeastern Mediterranean coast (modern Lebanon). Its important cities were Tyre and Sidon.
Cyprus. An island in the northeastern Mediterranean; the home of Barnabas (4:36). Antioch. The third city of the Roman empire, after Rome and Alexandria, with a population exceeding half a million. It was 15 miles inland from the northeast corner of the Mediterranean.
Last week we started our sermon series in Acts by looking at Chapter 10 which featured the acceptance of the gospel by Gentiles for the first time. This included Cornelius, a Roman Centurion who feared God and was respected by the Jews.
Antioch was renown for being immoral and, whilst being a Greek speaking city, had Greeks, Jews, Romans, Persians, Indians and Chinese people living there. This passage is the story of how the first largely Gentile local church was located here amongst pagan people. It was from this church that Paul's three missionary journeys were launched (13:1-4; 15:40; 18:23).
So the persecution caused the church to spread. Things would not have been easy for those first Christians, but this illustrates the words of Paul in Romans 8: 28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
On Remembrance Sunday we rightly remember with thanksgiving those who gave their lives in war so that we may be free.
This Remembrance Sunday is exactly two months since the terrorist atrocities in the United States. Everyone would denounce this but we have major powers involved in a war where one wonders how many more innocent civilians will starve, be injured or die, and where some have voiced the concern that the motivation for this war may be more about oil and the United States economy rather than terrorism.
We should ponder the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), Thirty-second President of the USA : "More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginnings of all wars."
As Christians we should question where love of our enemies and forgiveness come into this. Paul's wrote ( Romans 12:21 ) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Today Christians might also like to think about Jesus who died for us, and those who have been martyred for their faith through history so that we may know freedom from sin and death.
The Church was a persecuted church and it was a proclaiming church, as we read in verses 20 and 21. 20 Some 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. 21 The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
The word 'Greeks' probably refers to Greek speaking people in multicultural Antioch who could be from a number of diverse races. There are two aspects to the sharing of the good news that we encountered last week. We discovered how one of the four themes of Chapter 10, and indeed the whole of Acts, is that the gospel is spread by proclamation in the power of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is described as, The Lord's hand was with them. Just as we move our hands to do things for us so the hand of God, His Spirit, moves to bring people to faith which benefits them and the body of believers. This is not, of course, to suggest that we are all like puppets with no free will and God's hand working us. We are free to rely upon God's Spirit to help us to live, or we are free to live in our own strength and grieve the Holy Spirit.
Just as there was two elements, of words and God's power, to the proclamation there was also two parts to the response.
21b. a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
People believed or trusted in Jesus. Verse 20 says that they told the good news about the Lord Jesus. Up until now Jesus had been proclaimed as the Messiah or Christ to those who had a knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures. Now Jesus is revealed as the Lord. The Greek world had many gods and lords, but Jesus is proclaimed as the Lord above any other lords and gods. A reminder to us that he is to come first in our lives before our families, our homes, our jobs, our possessions, our money, even ourself.
Today we remember those who gave their lives up without knowing the outcome of their sacrifice. We are to sacrifice our lives in the certain knowledge that this will bring peace with God and an eternity with him.
The second action was to 'turn to the Lord'. I mentioned earlier that Antioch was known for its low morals. Jesus calls those who want to follow him to turn away from their old way of sin and death to righteousness and life, empowered by His Spirit.
The apostles were based in Jerusalem and, when they heard about what was happening they decided they had to investigate this to see if this really was the work of God and was in accordance with the teachings of Jesus. They took a gentle approach by sending Barnabas.
The word Barnabas comes from the Greek ( Acts 4:36 ) meaning son of encouragement. Formerly called Joseph, he was a Levite from Cyprus, who was an early convert to Christianity. He sold a field and gave the proceeds to help poorer believers in Jerusalem (4:36ff.).
He was "a good man and full of the Holy Spirit and faith" (Acts 11:24). 23, When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.
This reminds us of three things.
To rejoice when we see God at work in people. We can easily be negative and expect people to behave in a certain way, which can actually be more about what we want than what God wants. Instead we should rejoice when we see God at work. The P.C.C. met on the Saturday morning of October 6th. We asked " In what areas of our church life are we experiencing God's blessing ? Answers included the re-roofing of the Church Hall; new people attending church; the Brownies use of the Hall; the Luncheon Club; people's kindness; children attending Adventurers; the participation of children in church; the way that the P.C.C. operates...
encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord. We are to persevere in the Christian faith. It is not a sprint but a marathon and we are called to keep going in trusting, following and serving Jesus.
with all their hearts - there is no place for anything but total commitment to Jesus. Nothing should come between us and God. Not our busyness, our families, our difficulties and disappointments. We can bring these things to God and ask for his help and his forgiveness.
After Barnabas arrived a great number of people were brought to the Lord, showing that he had the approval of God who brings people to faith by his grace.
Barnabas had worked with Paul before, he spoke on Paul's behalf to the Jerusalem church (9:27). He would have known of Paul's ministry to Gentiles and went to Tarsus, the home of Paul. He brought him back and they taught the church and perhaps others ,'great numbers', for a whole year.
Without good, consistent teaching Christians will not grow as they should in their faith, love and service of God. We can reasonably assume that the teaching included things about the person, life, teaching, death, resurrection, ascension and future return of Jesus. It is fair to assume it included the need for repentance and faith, as we saw earlier, as well as teaching about how to live as a follower of Jesus. This probably included the prohibition of certain types of food and sexual immorality because in 15:19 the church leaders in Jerusalem wrote to believers "You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality."
At the end of a year the two men were sent with a collection from this new church to the believers at Jerusalem, who were suffering from famine, as we will look at next week. So caring for fellow believers was, in all likelihood, also taught.
The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. The people of Antioch were known for their wit and nicknaming skills. They assumed that 'Christ' was a proper name rather than a title and named the disciples 'Christianoi', people of Christ. In a similar way followers of Herod were called 'Heroianoi'. The name given to the disciples may have been playful rather than derisory.
Although it appears only twice in other New Testament passages the word 'Christian' is appropriate in marking disciples as followers of Christ. Bearing the name of Christ brought martyrdom to most of the first followers of Jesus. Bearing that name brings persecution to some Christians today, as we saw earlier. Bearing that name brings many blessings, but with those blessings come responsibilities to live in a certain way. But God also gives Christians his Spirit so they have the power to live, witness and serve him. Let us pray that God will give us everything we need to live up to the name 'Christian'.