11 June 2021Acts 11:19-30
When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion (v. 23)
Today's reading depicts the growth of the Church in Antioch, the third largest city in the Graeco-Roman world and the capital of the Roman province of Syria. The passage begins by noting that Christians had been driven there because of the persecution experienced in Jerusalem (v. 19). While the opponents of the faith intended to wipe out the Christians, their action had in fact spread them far and wide. Here, as elsewhere, the suffering of the Church was a means of its expansion and growth.
The Church at Antioch began when some ‘men of Cyprus and Cyrene’ spoke to Hellenists about Jesus (v. 20). ‘Hellenists’ in this context probably refers to Greeks, or those who are not Jews. It is Antioch, then, that the Church first begins to attract gentiles (non-Jews) in great numbers. Following the news of such conversions, the Church in Jerusalem sends Barnabas to Antioch to find out more (v. 22). It is Barnabas who sees and recognises the grace of God in this new Christian community and exhorts them to remain faithful to the Lord. Luke describes him as a "good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith" (v. 24a), and it’s difficult to think of a more praiseworthy description. It is Barnabas too who introduces Paul – here called Saul – to the community of Antioch, and together they teach the disciples and new Christians (vs 25-26). In fact, the name ‘Christians’ is first applied to followers of Jesus in Antioch (v. 26), probably initially by outsiders.
Luke also tells the story of visiting prophets from Jerusalem who come to visit Antioch (v. 27). One of them called Agabus prophesied about a coming famine (v. 28), and we know that a series of famines did take place during the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD). Hearing of the coming difficulties, the disciples determine to give ‘according to their ability’ to believers back in Judea, which they did via Barnabas and Saul (v. 29). Such generosity is a fruit of the Spirit, and one that characterised the earliest disciples.
- How can we become known as people who are "full of the Holy Spirit and of faith"?
- God used the persecution of the Church to help it grow. In what ways might we see God working through social difficulties in helping the Church to grow?
- In what ways can wealthier churches better support struggling churches in the UK and across the globe?