Just As He Had Planned It.


19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.

27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. Acts 11:19-30 ESV

In this section, Luke begins to introduce yet another phase of the church’s continuing spread and growth. Back in chapter eight, he had described one of the ramifications of Stephen’s martyrdom. It was the increased persecution of the church, in part, because of the efforts of Saul. Yet, in spite of the intensification of the persecution, he said, “the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went” (Acts 8:4 NLT). Then, by way of example, he chronicled Philip’s trip to the region of Samaria and all that happened as a result. Here in chapter 11, Luke picks up where he left off, letting us know that the persecution of the church had resulted in a dispersion of the Christians well beyond Samaria. The believers who fled Jerusalem “traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch” (Acts 10:19 ESV). But then Luke adds a telling detail, revealing that these Jewish believers kept their efforts to share the gospel restricted to their own people: The Jews. He says that they spoke the word to no one but Jews. This is significant because he shares it immediately after detailing the dramatic outcome of Peter’s journey to Caesarea, where Gentiles came to faith and received the anointing of the Spirit of God just as the disciples had on the day of Pentecost. This provides us with an important insight into the early days of the church. As the church continued to grow and the gospel made its way outside the confines of Jerusalem and Judea, the effort developed multiple fronts, each seemingly with its own emphasis and distinct motivation. Those Jewish believers who escaped and made their way to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch in Syria, were still under the impression that this new religion was little more than a new branch of reformed Judaism. It was a religion of Jews and for Jews. After all, Jesus had been a Jew and had claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. So, it made sense that they would concentrate their efforts to share the gospel by focusing on fellow Jews. And, as Jews, the thought of sharing their new-found faith with a Gentile would never have crossed their minds. Remember, it had taken a vision and a word from God to get Peter to go to the home of Cornelius.

Cyprus, Phoenicia and Antioch were located hundreds of miles from Jerusalem and illustrate the ever-expanding reach of the gospel. Antioch, located in the region of Syria, was 300 miles from the city of Jerusalem and, at that time, would have been the third-largest city in the entire Roman empire. It was a bustling metropolis, made up of people from all walks of life and from all over the world. It is estimated that Antioch had a population of anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 people, with a seventh of them being Jews. As a city, it had a reputation for decadence and its citizens’ love of pleasure. And yet, Antioch would become a major hub for Christianity in the coming years.

As the believing Jews made their ways to these various destinations, they faithfully shared the good news regarding Jesus Christ. Luke tells us that, in Antioch, they included Hellenistic Jews in their target audience. And he records that “a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21 ESV). Even though they were restricting their outreach to Jews, God was blessing their efforts. And when news of what was happening in Antioch got back to the leadership of the church in Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to check it out. When he arrived, Barnabas was greatly encouraged by what he saw and spent time exhorting those in the church there “to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (Acts 11:23 ESV). He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. It was not going to be easy to live out their new faith in the midst of a culture like that in Antioch. These people, as Jews, were already in the minority. Now, as believers, they were going to face further rejection by their own people. So, Barnabas felt compelled to strengthen the fledgling church by remaining with them for a prolonged period of time.  And knowing he would need help, he traveled to Tarsus to enlist Saul in his efforts. This would begin an important new phase in the God-ordained ministry of Saul. And it is essential that we recognize God’s sovereign hand at work in all these details. Stephen’s martyrdom had resulted in persecution and the dispersion of the church. It had also resulted in Saul’s intensified efforts in that persecution, after he approvingly watched the stoning of Stephen. And yet, the resurrected Jesus had confronted Saul as he made his way to Damascus to arrest and round up Christians and, as a result, Saul had undergone a dramatic conversion. And some three years later, when Saul had traveled to Jerusalem, it had been Barnabas who acted as his host and sponsor, introducing him to the apostles and explaining the dramatic details behind Saul’s conversion. Now, when the leaders in Jerusalem felt compelled to send a representative to Antioch to investigate all that was going on, they just so happened to choose Barnabas. This was anything but a case of happenstance or blind fate. It was the hand of God. Barnabas was chosen because God had ordained it. And his arrival in one of the largest, predominantly Gentile cities in the Roman empire was something God orchestrated. Now, he would have Saul working by his side, a man whom Jesus had chosen to be His witness to the Gentiles. It’s important that we recall the words spoken by Jesus to Ananias, commanding him to go lay hands on Saul immediately after his Damascus road experience:

“Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. – Romans 9:15 ESV

Here in this chapter, we see God instigating what will be another new front in the war against sin and death. He is putting one of His primary weapons into the battle, sending Saul into an environment where his gifts and abilities would be used by the Spirit of God to accomplish great things for the Kingdom. It had probably been close to nine years since Saul’s conversion, and during that time, he would have been growing in his faith and honing his Spirit-given abilities as a messenger of the gospel. God had been preparing Saul for this very occasion.
Luke records that Saul and Barnabas spent a year in Antioch; ministering, evangelizing, and growing the fledgling congregation there. Interestingly, Luke provides us with the insight that it was at this point in the timeline of the church that believers came to be known and referred to as Christians. This was most likely about ten years after Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. A decade had passed and the church, formerly called “the way” was now known for the name of the One in whose name they believed and had placed their faith. This name is significant in that it contains three important characteristics. First of all, “Christ” is the Greek translation of Messiah. The Messiah was the Jewish Savior, promised by God in the Hebrew Scriptures. So, we have in the name “Christian”, an obvious link to the Jewish roots of Jesus. But Christ would become the primary name by which Gentiles would commonly refer to Jesus. It became like a second name for Him, much as we use it today. And the ending, “ians” is of a Latin derivation, the language of Rome and the predominate language of the empire. Luke’s inclusion of the seemingly insignificant fact that the name, “Christian” had become the primary means by which believers were described is more important than we might imagine. The faith was becoming universalized. It was making inroads into the various cultures of the day, and developing a reputation as a free-standing religion, separate and distinct from Judaism or any other pagan religion. It was slowly, but surely, becoming a fixture in the culture of the day.
Luke ends this chapter with what appears to be another interesting, and far from unimportant anecdote: A prophecy regarding an eminent worldwide famine. Once again, we have to look beyond the black and white nature of Luke’s reporting of Agabus’ prophecy. Why did Luke, under the inspiration of the Spirit, include this information at this point in his book? As we will see, this famine will play a significant part in the future of the church. And Luke provides some insight into how it will impact the ministry of Saul himself.
29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. – Acts 11:29-30 ESV
The church in Jerusalem would suffer greatly because of this famine. The Jews there, already suffering from persecution because of their faith, would find themselves living in relative poverty and barely able to exist. While there had been a time, in the early days of the church in Jerusalem, when the rich believers had been able to provide for the less-fortunate in their midst, after the arrival of the famine, that would no longer be possible. Now, the global church would provide for the needs of those in Jerusalem. And Saul would make it part of his life’s mission to raise funds from among the predominantly Gentile congregations to which he ministered, and to see that those resources made their way back to the church in Jerusalem. God would even use a famine to accomplish His will regarding the spread of the gospel and the unity of the church around the world. As it spread, God would see to it that it remained unified in its love and mission.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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