The Christ-centered Church at Antioch
Scripture: Acts 11:19–26
The Christ-centered Church at Antioch – Acts 11:19–26
PRAY: Help us to see your truth clearly/accurately, help us to submit to it wholly/completely. May you conform us in spirit and in truth to what you have said is best for us because it glorifies you most. Amen.
When we come to Acts chapter 11 and verse 19, we backtrack in time slightly to pick up the story at the beginning of severe persecution in Jerusalem to find out about God working in another region and with different people. From that persecution the author, Luke, has already traced the work of Philip in Samaria and the conversion of Saul, then back to the ministry of Peter in and around Judea. It was there too that we learned of all that happened concerning Peter & Cornelius, about Gentiles coming to faith and the church learning not to be biased against Gentiles but to share Christ freely with them because they too can be “granted repentance that leads to life” (v. 18).
So here we get a sort of “meanwhile.” - While God was preparing the Jerusalem church to accept Gentile inclusion, he was already at work to plant the first Jew & Gentile blended church (made up of some hellenistic Jews and a lot of Gentiles).
Acts 11:19–26 ESV
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. 22The 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.
I love this passage bc I love the church bc I love the Lord who is its founder and protector, who is the church’s head and sole aim.
And this passage shows that the existence of local churches is nothing less than God’s own work. The local church is nothing less than God’s own work. But it also tells us how God has chosen to accomplish that work.
So let me put what we see in the pattern at Antioch today in the context of God accomplishing his purpose.
God’s purpose is to advance his kingdom as he makes a people for the praise of his glorious name. That kingdom moves forward by the spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is accomplished as God establishes and builds up faithful churches.
To that end of planting and growing faithful churches…
We see in the pattern of the Antioch church in Acts 11:19-26… [list the three]
Christ-centered: It was here at Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.” - Although the originators of this term (those who coined it), may have meant it pejoratively/negatively, those who bear the name of Jesus would come to wear the term Christian as a badge of truth and honor. - Calling them Christians would mean that these people had clearly marked themselves off as the people who followed Jesus, the Christ. Why would they call them that? Because in everything, these people never ceased to speak about and draw attention to the fact that Christ is central to what God has said and what God plans to do. The disciples would speak of Christ’s coming, and of what Christ accomplished, and the ongoing mediation of Christ… all being central to God’s word and God’s plan. So yeah, these people came to be called Christians not only because it distinguished them from Judaism, but primarily because they were the people who were plainly Christ-centered.
So we see from the pattern of the birth of the Antioch church that…
God Uses Christ-centered Proclamation
This church established at Antioch did not occur because of some grand plan on the part of the Jerusalem Church. The Antioch Church didn’t come about because of a well-executed strategy by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. From their side, this was a completely unplanned church plant.
Luke reminds us (v. 19) that this spread of the gospel came about by God allowing the persecution that arose over Stephen. Acts 8:1-3 told of a great persecution that arose following Stephen’s execution by stoning, due in no small part to the zeal of a young Pharisee named Saul! But Luke clearly indicated the hand of God in this because “they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Ac 8:1b), and “those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Ac 8:4).
Remember what Jesus told his disciples that becomes the theme, the outline for all of Acts?
Acts 1:8 ESV
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
God superceded the wicked intentions of the Jewish religious leaders and worked this for the good of his people and progress of his kingdom. Those who proclaimed Christ at Antioch were among the followers of Jesus scattered by persecution. “You will be my witnesses.” By the power of the Spirit, they were hiswitnesses, speaking about Christ being God’s revelation for our salvation.
Now, because these first verses are back again before the events of chapter 10, they hadn’t heard that Gentiles also were receiving Christ, so most of them were speaking “to no one except Jews,” even though they were spread out as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch.
Phoenicia being the coastal region directly north of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. Its major cities were Tyre and Sidon.
Cyprus is that first island to the west in the Mediterranean, also the birthplace of Barnabas. And of course a bit further north of Israel you see Antioch (of Syria) which was the capital of the Roman province of Syria. It was the third-largest city at the time (after only Rome & Alexandria), with as many as half a million people.
So it was at Antioch that some of the Jewish believers from Cyprus and Cyrene (a kingdom in northern Africa to the west of Egypt) spoke to the Greeks also. This word Hellenists (hellenistes, Gk) is used three different ways in Acts, depending on the context: Gk-speaking Jews (Ac 9:29), Gk-speaking Jewish Christians (Ac 6:1), or (as here) Gk-speaking Gentiles.
Now, yes, the content of what they say is “preaching (proclaiming) the Lord Jesus” (the end of v. 20), but two times in here the verb is the simple term for speaking (laleo, vv. 19-20). What an encouragement this should be to us! Here we have simple people simply speaking God’s truth about Christ.
You do not have to be as powerful in proclamation as George Whitefield (whose voice could not only be heard by thousands, but whom God used to transform thousands in submission to Christ). You do not have to be as eloquent in presentation as Charles Spurgeon (whose preaching dripped with poignant metaphors). You only need to speak what God has said about Christ in his word.
These nameless saints should be our heroes. Faithfulness to Christ is the goal, not thousands of listeners.
And what is the result of simple faithfulness to Christ, simple speaking to others of the gospel of Jesus Christ? v. 21! “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.”
The hand of the Lord was with those who spoke to the Greeks. God did the work, but he did so through the faithful proclamation of these saints. And a great many believed, and synonymous with that believing is that these Gentiles turned to the Lord. Believing in Jesus is the same as saying that we are spiritually transformed so that the way we were going is no longer the way we are heading, such that we no longer pursue our sin or elevate ourselves as our own masters, but that we have turned wholly to Jesus—he is Lord of all.
Ok, so what we have seen so far?
Remember us saying earlier in Acts that persecution doesn’t thwart God’s purpose or his plan or his power. Because God is providentially at work, persecution is most likely to bring about God’s purpose. Therefore, we remain steadfastly faithful to our Lord, knowing that he is always working to achieve his purpose.
But God is yet achieving his purpose through his people. How? By speaking the word about Christ—through Christ-centered proclamation.
-Are you speaking the word of the Lord? Isn’t evangelism (speaking to unbelievers about Christ) every member’s privilege, every Christians responsibility? - Again, they were speaking (normal Gk word for talking). The term Christian literally came bc they were the people known for talking always about Christ.
[repeat] … to bring people to saving faith and to grow them in Christ.
See too from the pattern of the Antioch Church, in its consolidation and growth, that…
God Uses Christ-centered People
Referring briefly back to the first witnesses: These are people displaced by persecution and yet they are grounded, secure. Why, how? Because their life is now centered in Christ. Jesus is not Lord only in Jerusalem and only over the Jews. Jesus is Lord of all people in every place and in all situations. Under this knowledge, they (and we) can trust him and promote him always. These unnamed heroes have become Christ-centered people. Above all else, they bear the name of Christ, they are “Christians.”
So too, what we see particularly emphasized with Barnabas is that [repeat title] ... to lead and minister in faithful churches, people who aim to produce other Christlike people = discipleship.
The Jerusalem church sent Barnabas (v. 22) because he was a man of trusted character. You don’t just send anybody on this kind of errand! When the church heard of gospel proclamation in Samaria, it was the Apostles Peter and John who went, so it is no small thing that they send Barnabas, who must be a man of proven character.
It reminds me of Paul telling the Philippian church (Cf. Php 2:21-23), that even though he cannot soon come to them because he is under house arrest, he confidently sends Timothy as his representative because even they know his “proven worth,” that he doesn’t focus on himself but on Christ. Barnabas, like Timothy, is a Christ-centered man of proven character.
What does our text say about Barnabas the man? v. 24a
That Barnabas is a good man (agathos) means simply that he has desirable qualities. When I think of Barnabas’s character, I think of… Humility, faithfulness, compassion, sincerity, honesty. - We want to be people like Barnabas who are… encouraging, generous, passionate, … patient, kind, loving, gentle, deferential, and submissive.
Barnabas is full of the Spirit, meaning he is submissive to and controlled by the Spirit as a regular demeanor of his life. And full of faith, trust in God.
How does a Christ-centered man respond to God at work, and what does a Christ-centered man do? - v. 23 - He recognizes the grace of God and rejoices in it. And his aim is to produce other Christlike people; this is discipleship.
Barnabas was training them that what should matter most to us as individuals is character before God: relationship with and faithfulness to God. He builds them up to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, that they too should be Christ-centered in all things.
In Christian training, we aim to see a person grow in character, in conviction, and in competence. But it is character which forms the pyramid’s foundation. Convictions of God’s truth are built on Christlike character. Competence flows through both of these to manifest christlike character and biblically sound convictions into competence in specific ministries.
What is the result of a faithful man recognizing the hand of the Lord and committing himself to encouraging and training others to be like Christ? v. 24b!
[repeat two previous] … to Start & to Sustain Faithful Churches.
See from the pattern at Antioch, from the cooperation between individuals and church communities, that…
God Uses Christ-centered Partnerships
We see a partnership clearly forming between the Jerusalem Church and the Antioch Church.
The church plant at Antioch was initiated completely apart from the planning of the Jerusalem Church. But because of what they heard, they did come alongside to offer confirmation and guidance through Barnabas.
Not only that, but later the connection between the two communities of believers has developed to the point where some from Jerusalem with the gift of prophecy come down to them. (more explanation on prophets next week) And then when the Christians hear about the famine that will strike the whole region, they send financial assistance (bc they are a more affluent church) to aid the church in Jerusalem. (vv. 27-30)
That Christ-centered partnership between these churches will prove important in the future, in such things as the Jerusalem leaders being supportive of Antioch’s missionary endeavors, and when the Antioch church, through Paul, provides accountability to the Jerusalem church when they are caught still playing favorites toward Jewish Christians.
There’s another, more personal partnership which Barnabas initiates here that launches a long-lasting and incredibly impactful partnership, between Saul and Barnabas. It won’t be without its hiccups, but this partnership proves wonderfully beneficial to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.
Barnabas evidently surveys the situation in Antioch and he remembers Saul, thinking, “You know who would be an amazing help to this ministry!” - I’m admitting that it’s a bit speculative bc the text doesn’t say, but I’m guessing that Barnabas had been in contact with Saul during the many-years-long gap that Saul has been maturing and in ministry in the region of his birth home, Tarsus.
So at Antioch the two begin teaching side by side (for a whole year), and Barnabas is pouring into Saul, encouraging his ministry. Barnabas does not seem concerned at all that Saul might outshine him. He probably prays for it! That’s a Christ-centered approach to ministry partnership. - When I pray for the younger men around me, I pray that they will be men of greater Christlike character and of greater faithfulness… of greater conviction and greater gifting. I have no doubt that there are men who have mentored me and have prayed the same.
We do not feel threatened by partnerships because the aim is Christ, not recognition for ourselves. Christ-centered partnerships realize that if Christ is magnified, everybody wins. That’s why we’re here; that’s our purpose.
And what’s the result? At Antioch the disciples were first called “Christians.” - The Antioch church became known for proclaiming Jesus as Christ, as Lord, as Savior. They were known as the followers of Christ.
Are we living up to the name “Christian”? Christ-centered people of Christ-centered proclamation, who form Christ-centered partnerships so that Christ is promoted. - That’s what we learn from God’s church plant in Antioch. “Christians,” followers and proclaimers of Jesus, is who we are and what we do.
The Church God Plants & Grows Is Christ-centered
The Antioch church was Christ-centered in its inception and remained Christ-centered in its growth and purpose. - There will be other ways in which the Antioch church will serve as a model church: they will prove to be a church of doctrinal conviction), and they will emerge as the church with disciple-making vision in reaching the Gentiles for Christ (a sending church).
For now, though, let’s focus on what we’ve seen in the text today, which first reminded us that…
God is working beyond our ability to plan. - We may lay plans, but we let the Lord lead.
Proverbs 19:21 ESV
21 Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.
That means that in many ways, we must continue to be… flexible, adapting, blending, accommodating, understanding, conceding, adjusting, even ‘compromising,’ etc. All these things can (and must) be done without shifting foundations, without unsettling our standing, without losing focus on Christ.
-Even programs and strategies need to stay in their place. Programs and plans must be servants to their purpose for existing, and servants to the people for whom they exist and servants to the people who lead them.
So the church that desires God’s blessing is one that… is not searching for gimmicks but simply doing things God’s way. And what is that way?
When God plants a church, his intention is that it be grounded in gospel preaching. That it be running on godly people who are partnering together to evangelize and build up the church.
Whatever plans we might make, whatever programs we might have, our strategy needs to be centered on Christ.
Church, let’s evaluate our gatherings and our ministries again for the vision of being Christ-centered. And as we work together in the local church and with others, let’s allow Christ-centeredness to unify us so that preferences and personalities and politics will fall away and we’ll be left with just Jesus.
Again, as yourself today, according to Christ-centeredness: Is my life spiritually healthy? Is our church healthy? (Not… is our church big? Is our church influential/powerful? Is our church noteworthy? … No, Is our church faithful/healthy?) Are we Christ-centered, are we being faithful to Christ?
Just so, Barnabas would charge us to “remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (Ac 11:23b).
As a church, then, our aim is that in everything the Lord Jesus Christ might be preeminent (Col 1:18). We are his. Him we proclaim. (Col 1:28) - That must not be just a slogan, but our actual vision, our purpose: to be Christ-centering people, partnering together to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:10–11 ESV
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
That’s what God has done and is doing through Jesus, and we’re simply learning to get on board with the Christ-centered mission of Christ’s own church.
More in Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles
February 25, 2024Paul’s Pattern & Plea for Selfless Shepherding (Part 2)
February 18, 2024Paul’s Pattern & Plea for Selfless Shepherding (Part 1)
February 11, 2024People Are the Ministry