Hand of God leedsacukBefore I get to my next Forbidden Bible Verses instalment, coming tomorrow, it is important to mention that the word ‘Christian’ appears in the Bible, specifically Acts 11:26.

I wrote about the first half of Acts 11 last week. The second half of Acts 11 is in the three-year Lectionary for public worship (emphases mine below):

The Church in Antioch

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[c] 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[d] living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

This reading is not only interesting but also important to the development of the early Church. Before discussing it in full, I will go into the use of the word Christian in Antioch. The city was pagan, and those who did not convert used ‘Christian’ as a derogatory term. John MacArthur explains:

That’s a new name and it was a term of derision, iani, i-a-n-i had to do with the party of. A Caesariani would have to do with Caesar. Christiani would be of the party of Christ, and this was a derisive mocking term. Oh he’s a Christian. He’s one of those Christ-party ones. The fact that Agrippa said, “… persuadeth thou me to become a Christian. And Peter says in I Peter 4, “If any of you suffer for being a Christian don’t be ashamed.” That was a term of derision. Those blessed people turned it into something courageous or something lovely, didn’t they? And you know something people, you and I bear the name that they died to preserve in purity. You know so many people call themselves Christians so glibly. Listen, if you’re a Christian, my friend, wear it well. It was given to the finest.

It is not so different today, particularly in parts of Europe where Christians are derided every day. It’s one of the reasons why I very much enjoy the opportunity to bring Christianity as a topic into a dinner party conversation.

The first part of Acts 11 records Peter’s account of the Holy Spirit descending on the Gentiles — namely Cornelius and his household — which was followed by baptism. Peter had to justify this to the Jewish converts in Jerusalem, because they were angry with him for teaching and associating with Gentiles. These were hardliners, known as the circumcision party, who believed that one could only believe in Jesus by becoming a Jew first, including the rite of circumcision. Once Peter explained everything, they not only calmed down, they also praised God.

The second part of Acts 11 records the expansion of the Church further into Gentile territory. We also see the re-emergence of Barnabas. St Luke, the author of Acts, was truly divinely inspired to write such a fascinating account of the Apostles’ and the disciples’ work.

Verse 19 reminds us that after Stephen was made the first martyr for Christ in Jerusalem (Acts 7), which Saul of Tarsus (later Paul) was involved in (Acts 8), many of the Jews who converted there left the city. The original Apostles remained for those who stayed. Among those who left were Hellenist (Greek) Jews. The scattered converts went near and far to convert more Jews. They would have long been out of Jerusalem by the time Peter returned to the city after his visit with Cornelius. They probably would have been out for six or seven years at that time.

MacArthur explains their various journeys in light of verse 19:

Now Phoenicia is the coastal plain of Palestine right along the Mediterranean Sea. Two famous cities there: Tyre and Sidon. And from either of those port cities you could catch a ship and go west and you’d come to the island of Cyprus. So that’s what they did. They went up to Phoenicia, Tyre, and Sidon and some of them got on a ship and west to Cyprus.

Some of them didn’t go west they just kept going north. If you keep going north on the coast you come to Antioch. Antioch became the capital of Syria and Antioch was then a strategic place and some folks came there. But notice this: that they were preaching to Jews only. Why? Because they still believe that salvation was for the Jews and they were still hung up on a nationalistic view of salvation. But God was about to bust them out of the shell.

However, some spoke to the Gentiles — Hellenists — in Antioch of Jesus (verse 20).

MacArthur describes Antioch, a largely pagan city full of commerce, culture and depravity:

Now Antioch is a very interesting city, 15 miles or so from the mouth of the Euphrates River, founded in about 300 B.C., later was made a free city. And when it was made a free city under the Roman government in 64 A. D. it has its own self-government. It became the capital of the Province of Syria. It became very famous, grew like crazy. It was the third largest city in the world. First was Rome, then was Alexandria, then was Antioch, had 600,000 people at least. It was famous for culture, it was famous for business. It was just a very very very large city. The network of Roman roads crisscrossed Antioch so it was a place where the all the caravans of the East unloaded their wares and all the wharves and warehouses of Antioch. Cicero said it was a land of most learned men in liberal studies. But with all this good thing it was basically known as an evil city. In fact, Juvenal, a Roman writer said that the Euphrates River spilled its garbage into the Tiber, and what he meant was that Antioch corrupted Rome.

Now if Rome was rotten you can get an idea about how rotten that which corrupted Rome must have been. Antioch was gross to put it mildly. The people lived for their pleasures. One writer said that life there was a perpetual festival of vice revolving around the baths, brothels, the amphitheatre and the circus. And so it was an evil place.

There was a goddess by the name Daphne, who was supposed to be the lover of Apollo and they built a garden that was so big it was 10 miles in circumference and it was populated by prostitutes and you went in and indulged yourself in the garden and the prostitute activity and all kinds of sick immoralities. That was worship in the city of Antioch. When they wanted to expand their religious opportunities they hired magicians, sorcerers, charlatans and Babylonian astrologers made a fortune off the people of Antioch. So it was a vile place.

Converts preached to the pagans in the city and ‘the hand of the Lord was with them’ (verse 21). Many pagans — Gentiles — converted. MacArthur reminds us of the significance of ‘the hand of the Lord’ in Scripture:

It means two things: first of all it means power. The hand of the Lord means power. In Exodus 14:31, the Bible says, “And Israel saw that great work, which the Lord had done.” And the word work is the word hand. It expresses power and the Egyptians were shocked at what God had done. They said, “Look it is the finger of God.” His hand extended means power. But it always means power with blessing. There may be something happening in it, but ultimately He’s blessing. It may be something of an evil nature initially, but blessing is the end of it. And it’s more qualified in Ezra. Ezra 7:9, Ezra 8:18, Nehemiah 2: 2,8, 18. All of that in there you can read sometime not now. But in that passage you have the statement, “The good hand of the Lord.” And it’s repeated at least four or five times. The hand of the Lord then means blessing.

So the hand of the Lord is power for blessing. And so the hand of the Lord moved into Antioch with power that resulted in salvation, power with blessing. And look at the harvest. A great number believed.

News of these great conversions in Antioch reached Jerusalem. The church there sent Barnabas to join the disciples in Antioch.

Barnabas appeared early in Acts, specifically Acts 4:36-37:

36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Barnabas was one of the Hellenist Jews who converted in Jerusalem. There is a further explanation on him by John MacArthur in this post. In short, he was a kind, generous, devout man.

He also lacked prejudice. In my post on Acts 9:26-31, when Saul of Tarsus — the fiercest persecutor of the Church in Jerusalem — returned a convert and attempted to join the disciples, only Barnabas came to his defence. It was thanks to Barnabas’s efforts that they accepted Saul:

27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord.

That passage states that Saul had to leave Jerusalem, because the Jews wanted to kill him. So, he went back to his native Tarsus for a few years.

When Barnabas arrived in Antioch, he was delighted to see such a manifestation of God’s grace, but some of the converts were discouraged — no doubt ridiculed, perhaps harmed. Barnabas encouraged — ‘exhorted’ — them to keep the faith (verse 23).

Here’s a note from MacArthur on the meaning of ‘exhortation’:

Positive encouragement. It’s not the idea of browbeating. There are some people who think they’re exhorting when all they’re doing is browbeating, crushing people. This is positive encouragement.

Through Barnabas’s exhortations, many more souls in Antioch were added to the Lord (verse 24).

There were so many converts now that Barnabas needed help from another powerful teacher. So, he left for Tarsus in search of Saul (verse 25). Barnabas also did not want to lose any of the converts. They had a hard time living in a depraved metropolis — not so different to big cities today:

First thing, he exhorted them to cling to the Lord. That’s the first thing necessary, I think, in dealing with a new Christian. You’ve led somebody to Christ, what’s the thing that concerns you the most? That they hold on to Christ, right? That their faith be real. You say, “I hope you mean this.” And then you begin to think, “Oh I hope they read the Word, right? and I hope they pray, and I hope it’s real.” Isn’t that what you think, always? Sure. That’s your first reaction when you lead somebody to Christ. I hope it’s real. I hope they hang onto to Christ and that they secure that faith by, that they secure that salvation by real faith …

Number two, if you are real, stay close to Jesus Christ. Practice His presence. You know the greatest joy for me when I lead somebody to Jesus Christ to see that person really getting involved with Jesus Christ. Isn’t that your joy? How many times have you led somebody to Christ and you can’t find them? Just discourages and breaks your heart. They’ve wandered off somewhere and you don’t know where they are. You try to track them down, it’s a sad thing. And so the first thing He does is come on, “Continue, continue,” He says. “Hold on to the Lord with all your strength.”

Once Barnabas found Saul, he brought him to Antioch. MacArthur says that Saul was preaching and teaching in and around Tarsus. He was not popular with many and got into a lot of trouble for his faith:

He went all over Cilicia starting churches. Well, in the meantime according to II Corinthians 11 says, he was being beaten up mercilessly and all the things that he suffered in II Corinthians 11, probably many of them or most of them even occurred in these years we don’t know about, the quiet years of Paul.

During that time he had really been working for the Lord and he was not easy to find. The word seek in the English doesn’t help you at all. What it means in the Greek is to search for something with difficulty. He couldn’t find him. Why? He probably long ago had been kicked out of Tarsus, and long ago kicked out of every other town that he traced him to. He finally caught up with him. He was so busy preaching. He might have been glad to get out of there by now and the Lord knew that and the timing was right.

This marks the beginning of the preaching duo of Saul and Barnabas. The two stayed with the expanding church in Antioch for a year (verse 26). We will read more about their ministry elsewhere in Acts.

The final verses of Acts 11 point to famine, backed up by historians of the day, and distant relief efforts made by the early Church, which created a framework so characteristic of Christianity: charitable giving to those far away who need help.

Prophets travelled from Jerusalem to Antioch (verse 27). One of them, Agabus, foretold a great famine that would overtake much of that part of the world during the reign of Claudius (verse 28).

MacArthur tells us more:

The Jerusalem church sent up some prophets. There were prophets in the New Testament. They were foundational like apostles Ephesians 2:20 tells us. And they spoke for God, and they preached, and their preaching is described in I Corinthians 14, if you want to check it out. But they preached and also spoke and sometimes predicted the future for God. They have ceased as an office.

The gift of prophecy still goes on, which is preaching. But the office of a prophet is ceased. But then it happened so some prophets came to Antioch and they stood up one of them come to speak for God and tell the church at Antioch some things they needed to know and his name was Agabus and he signified by the Spirit that there should be great famine throughout all the world, which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Incidentally, history says Claudius ruled from 41 to 54 and during the year 45 and 46 there were great famines in Israel. No crops came through, they all failed. Terrible famines are recorded by Chassidus, Josephus, Yesevias, Cassius, and there were times of famine.

The church in Antioch decided to give whatever they could to the church in Judea, sending it via Barnabas and Saul (verses 29, 30). Those who could give more generously did so. Those who gave what little they had out of necessity received no criticism.

In closing, I wanted to return to MacArthur’s recipe for church growth: doctrine and Scripture, about which I wrote the other day.

He is quite certain that is how Barnabas and Saul were able to increase the church in Antioch so dramatically:

Let’s see what they do? What kind of program they had? Boy I want to know because I got a church too. I want to find out what kind of program you need to get that thing going. And it came to pass for a whole year they assembled themselves together with the church, and had a lot of soup suppers, and had several contests, and lots of musical extravaganzas. That what it says? You say, that doesn’t say that. No, no. It says some of them together for one year and together they did what? Taught! You want to know what the church is for? It’s for teaching. If you never learn anything else about the church you learn that you’ve learned enough. The church is for teaching.

And I want to give you another salient point that I think you need to understand. When it came to pass that for a whole year they assembled themselves with the church. The word with is in, in the Greek it’s in. They assembled in the church. Apparently they had a large place where they all came together. The word assemble means they were all brought together. This idea that you can only teach in little groups isn’t so. Here in Antioch they had a big mass meeting where Paul and Barnabas taught them all the time for a year, that was their minister. You say well I’ll never forget one guy said one time he says, “What makes your church grow?” I said, “It’s just the teaching.” He says, “Oh that’ll never do it. I tried that. You got to do more than just teaching.” Well they spent a year teaching and the results are still going on. That’s my whole commitment. I don’t think the church really needs to set itself to do much else but teach. Teach. Teach. Teach. At every level, in every way, through every avenue, teach the Word of God.

The apostles said in Acts 6, “We will give ourselves continually to the ministry of the Word and prayer.” Teach. Teach. Teach. For one year they just taught and the fruit of their teaching, oh beloved fruit.

I really do wish today’s clergy realised this: preach the Word and they will come! No gimmicks necessary!

Forbidden Bible Verses continues tomorrow.

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