Chapter 5: New blessings and a new name
19 Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. 20 But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.
22 Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. 23 When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. 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 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. 26 And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
27 And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. 29 Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. 30 This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
Many new Christians from far and wide
In Amazing Acts—act one1 we considered how that persecution of Christians led to the gospel being shared far and wide by the Lord’s people who had to flee. We also noted that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Now we read that, after Stephen’s martyrdom, the scattering of the persecuted church is as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch.2 Phoenicia is at the centre of purple dye production. In fact, the name ‘Phoenicia’ is Greek for ‘purple’. Phoenicia is the coastal area north of Judea containing the ports of Tyre and Sidon. Cyprus is to the west of Syria and is the third largest Mediterranean island. Pagan Antioch, about two hundred miles north of Sidon, is the third largest city in the Roman Empire. Apart from Rome, only Alexandria, in Egypt, is larger than Antioch. Who would have guessed that the way to reach these significant centres of population with the saving message of Jesus Christ is through cruel persecution of Christians who share the good news about Jesus Christ as they flee from the relative comfort and security of their own homes? God is in control. He has His way of achieving His will.
Initially, the persecuted Christians share the gospel only with the Jews. But some believers from Cyprus and from Cyrene (a city under ten miles from the North African coast, in what is now Libya) proclaim the good news of Jesus. They do so along with Hellenists, who are people with Greek backgrounds and traditions. Just by ‘preaching the Lord Jesus a great number’ believe and turn to the Lord, because ‘the hand of the Lord is with’ the preachers. Preaching focussed on the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ will always cause people to turn to Him for forgiveness. God will bless them and give them a new spiritual birth and life through faith in His crucified but risen Son.3
Encouragement in Antioch from the Jerusalem church, from Barnabas, from Saul, and by a new name
Everyone needs encouraging now and then. This is especially so if you are one of a minority of persecuted Christians in a multi-cultural pagan place with a reputation for promoting anything that is hostile to biblical Christianity. God knows this and so encourages His born-again sons and daughters in Antioch. First, the church at Jerusalem hears of many conversions in Antioch and sends Barnabas, who lives up to his name of ‘Son of Encouragement’.4 This converted Levite5 has already demonstrated his sacrificial generosity and his brave and timely support for Saul as he sought to become established as a new Christian.6 Both the Jerusalem church and Barnabas are examples for Christians today to be encouraging and supportive of other Christians, especially those who are young in the faith, or who are weak or lonely, or who suffer persecution or go through hard times.
Barnabas is ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’. His heart is gladdened when his visit shows him ‘how the grace of God’ is active in the lives of those who have come to Christ in Antioch. But he looks beyond the immediate impetus that conversion joy brings to new Christians. Barnabas wants long-term faithfulness and fruitfulness to characterise each one of them: he does not accept that a single Christian in that church has any reason not to continue going on with the Lord in his or her personal life and walk. He encourages all of them ‘that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord’. God is still at work and continues to bless both the on-going sharing of the gospel and also the work of this encouraging disciple-trainer. This results in ‘a great many people being added to the Lord’.
But his encouragement goes further still. He personally goes to Tarsus to find Saul and bring him to Antioch. This will enable the last chosen apostle, Saul, and the godly Barnabas to teach the word of God to the Antioch church to establish them. Barnabas will thus be part of the answer to his prayer request that ‘with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord’. Saul and Barnabas join together to teach the church ‘for a whole year’. The result of ‘preaching the Lord Jesus’, accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit in the new converts, and strengthened by a year’s teaching of the word of God by Saul and Barnabas, is that disciples are formed. This work is so Christ-centred that the disciples are ‘first called Christians in Antioch’, even though that was a derisory name chosen by the locals, not by the disciples.
Some people today seem to regard a ‘Christian’ as an ordinary kind of converted person, and a ‘disciple’ as an upgraded or supercharged ‘Christian’. That is completely wrong. The Bible only allows two sorts of people. Either you are an unsaved sinner who therefore is lost unless you repent and yield to the saving power of the Lord Jesus in faith, or you have already turned from your sins and yielded to Christ as the Lord and Saviour of your life. If He is your Lord, you are under His discipline and are therefore His disciple. You then have the privilege to be called a Christian. You belong to Christ! He graciously trusts you to bear His name. Make sure that you live up to that wonderful name.
Christian disciples help needy people
In these early days of the Christian church God gives certain people special gifts to help His church to be effective for Him. Agabus is one such person. He is a prophet who belongs to the church at Jerusalem. He comes from there to the church at Antioch, obviously with the knowledge and authority of the Jerusalem-based apostles and of the elders of the church there. The Holy Spirit has made him aware that a great famine will come soon. His prophecy of famine will materialise under Claudius Caesar, the Roman Emperor from ad 41 to 54. The effects of the famine on those in Judea will be made worse by the Emperor’s anti-Jewish prejudice, (which Paul and Silas will experience later at Philippi).7 Claudius’s decree will be made around AD 49 expelling all Jews from Rome.8 That will cause some of the expelled Jews to move to live in Judea. The famine will cause less food to be available and there will be an increase in the number of people who will need feeding. So Agabus’s God-given prophecy makes the coming famine a matter for urgent current action.
The disciples in Antioch demonstrate that their Christianity goes beyond their commendable zeal to know God’s word better and make it better known. They determine to send famine relief to their Judean Christian brothers. Each of them gives as he or she is able. The money is sent to the Jerusalem church elders through men the Antioch Christians know and trust. Who could be better for that task than their beloved teachers of God’s word, Saul and Barnabas? It is good and wise to give money for those in need through known committed Christians. They can be trusted to make sure that the needy really do benefit, and that through this the work of the church in the needy area is supported.
A closing thought
Is our level of living and discipleship as worthy of the name ‘Christian’ as is the case in the early church at Antioch? Do we put Christ first in our lives? Before answering consider two more challenges posed by the practice of this infant church. First, are we generous and sacrificial in our giving to God’s work? Second, do we give money to help those who suffer, especially those sufferers who are brothers and sisters in Christ? Jesus said, ‘It is more blessed to give than receive’.9 If we have been blessed by receiving God’s ‘indescribable gift’ of ‘eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’10 we will be only too pleased to give generously to Him and through Him to others. That giving will include our time, effort, possessions, and money. As C. T. Studd, the former England cricketer and missionary pioneer, rightly said, ‘If Jesus Christ is God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him.’
Questions on Chapter 5
Acts 11:19–30 New blessings and a new name
A. Why did so many people believe and turn to Christ in Acts 11:19–21?Acts 11:19–21, John 12:32–33, John 16:7–15
B. How and in how many ways did encouragement feature in the early church? What helped the church to strengthen and grow?
Acts 11:22–26, Acts 11:27–30, Romans 1:16, Acts 1:8, Acts 4:12, Jonah 2:9
C. How much can you learn about Christian giving in Acts 11:27–30? How does that compare with what you learn about giving in the gospels?
Acts 11:27–30, Acts 20:35, Luke 21:1–4, Matthew 26:6–13
- Amazing Acts—act one is the first book in the Amazing Acts trilogy. The three books together cover the whole of the Acts of the Apostles. ↩
- Acts 7:54–60, Acts 8:1–4 ↩
- John 1:12, John 3:16, 1 Peter 1: 18–19, 23 ↩
- Acts 4:36 Other translations of his name are as the son of (1) consolation, or (2) exhortation, or (3) comfort. ↩
- Levites, from the tribe of Levi, helped in the Old Testament period to maintain and transport the tabernacle. They were not priests (descendants of Aaron). Levites were consecrated to God to look after the sacrifices and material upkeep of the tabernacle and later of the temple. ↩
- Acts 4:36–7, Acts 9:27 ↩
- See Acts 16:20–25, and note that of the four Christian men witnessing there (Paul, Silas, Luke and Timothy) only the two Jews, Paul and Silas, are imprisoned, flogged, and put in the stocks in the prison. ↩
- Acts 18:2 ↩