The background for today’s message comes from Acts 11:19-26. Luke wrote these words under the Holy Spirit’s guidance about how things were beginning to change. Historically, these events happened sometime after Stephen’s martyrdom, which we can read about in Acts 9. Perhaps some of the believers mentioned in this part of the text had witnessed that event. Yet, now as then, God was and is in control, and He is making something happen. Let’s read together:
“So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”
See How the Church Was Expanding
The believers in this passage all were relatively new in the faith. Remember that Jews had come from all over the known world on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), and many of them stayed to learn more about the new faith in Messiah Jesus. Now, though, things had changed.
The biggest change, it seems, was that believers were being persecuted as a group. True, we read of Peter and John who spent a night in jail for healing the lame man (Acts 3 and 4); and in Acts 5, we read of all the apostles being thrown into prison for the night, but never a systematic, deliberate attempt to rid Jerusalem of believers in Jesus—until Stephen was martyred for his faith and testimony.
Stephen and six other men were the first deacons, though they aren’t called deacons in Acts 6 or 7. They were men who were called to help with a problem based on cultural differences. Acts 6 relates the story of how the deacons were selected and what they did to help the church in those early days. Stephen wasn’t only a good helper or servant; but he knew Scripture and the history of Israel.
Briefly, Acts 7 records his review of Israel’s’ history and how the people were rejecting God’s most recent message. The people hearing him were so enraged they stoned him to death.
They didn’t stop there.
Acts 8:3 speaks of Saul who was the leader of the hit squad to throw these believers into prison. One’s gender made no difference to him; he did his job thorougly. Because of this persecution, some believers fled to Judea (outside of Jerusalem) and Samaria; later, they went on toward Antioch.
I’ve sometimes wondered, Why Antioch? For one thing, Antioch was nearly 300 miles away from Jerusalem, so there’s a factor of distance. Another thing is Antioch was in another political division of the Roman Empire, so the authorities in Jerusalem or Damascus had no authority over anyone in Antioch.
So all in all, as the disciples fled Jerusalem, they preached as they went. Remember the church was 100 percent Jewish at that time, either those who were born Jewish or those who had converted to Judaism (proselytes). Some preached the gospel only to Jews, but others preached to everyone—Jew or Gentile! The church was changing in terms of demographics: not just Jews, but Gentiles also had the chance to hear the gospel and believe.
There were still a couple of things that make me pause or marvel at the people God uses. Except for Barnabas himself, we don’t know the names of any of these believers from Cyprus. We don’t know the names of any believers from Cyrene, except Simon. We have to wonder if he stayed in Jerusalem after he carried the cross for Jesus? Think about it: All these preachers or missionaries were ordinary people. They weren’t apostles, prophets, deacons or whatever. We don’t know what they did, or used to do, for a living; but we do know that because they shared the message of Jesus, the church expanded from Jerusalem all the way to Antioch!
See How These New Believers Were Encouraged
Now we can see there’s a need for new believers. Those who came from Jerusalem to Antioch, preaching and winning people to Jesus as they went, knew it wasn’t enough to give them the gospel alone, only to leave them after sharing the gospel message. They, too, had experienced this! None of them were living in Jerusalem when Pentecost happened, and they knew the apostles and others took time to help them understand their new faith.
How hard would it be for someone to understand a brand new faith! Those who brought the gospel either had been born Jews, knowing the Old Testament, but the Gentiles at that time would have had little knowledge of anything pertaining to Judaism and the Old Testament except what they encountered from Jews living near them. Those bringing the gospel message had hundreds, maybe thousands, of years’ worth of cultural and religious heritage.
I have read of people who have converted to other religions, one case in particular was Gracia Burnham. She and her family were kidnapped and taken hostage in the Philippines by Muslim captors. She related how some of the native Filipina women, one by one, gave in and converted to Islam. The women were taught the ways of prayer and other things, and they were given a few verses from the Qur’an (Koran) to memorize. I don’t remember when, if or how these native women were rescued, but Gracia and her husband never gave in to the pressure.
In some parts of the world, especially where Bibles are in short supply, new believers are in danger of reverting to the faith they left. This is a serious problem where believers are a minority. That was the case in Antioch, too. Though the church was safe from the Jewish persecutors (Saul and those who traveled with him), that was no guarantee things were rosy for the new believers.
So, what did the believers do? They kept on preaching, and they apparently kept on making disciples! Word eventually got back to Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. He saw what was happening, and he began to encourage the new believers, too! Think about it: Not only was Barnabas one of only three men, besides Jesus Himself, to be called good in all the Bible; he was known as an encourager. He stood by Saul after Saul genuinely was converted to faith in Jesus (and nobody in Jerusalem believed the news!). He also encouraged others when he sold a piece of land and gave the proceeds to the church to help others. We could use a whole lot of Barnabas-type people, those who encourage others.
Those who encourage others need to be given a chance to practice this gift. Perhaps you’ve heard of some denominations that have exhorters, who may or may not be ordained or licensed to the ministry, who may or may not be called to preach in a professional aspect. I remember one such man in a Church of the Nazarene I visited once. He gave a word of exhortation, and I’m telling you that man could preach. He never served as a pastor, and it’s anybody’s guess how often he was able to speak; but I’ll tell you this, though I don’t remember his text or much else after 30-plus years, I’ll never forget how his message went like a dart to my heart that evening.
Now you and I can do some encouraging, too. You ask how? Think of some ways where you may be doing this already.
First, don’t forget to pray for one another. This may sound simple, but how often do we need to be reminded? When someone asks for prayer, they need it, so remember that need.
Second, don’t forget to say an encouraging word. It may make a real difference not only in or for someone’s day, but also his or her life.
Seek the Lord’s will for other ways. You may be or provide the only encouragement someone faces on a particular day.
See the Effect After Paul Came to Antioch
Wasn’t this a good problem to have? Barnabas, the son of encouragement, stayed and helped disciple this first generation of believers from Antioch. However, things apparently were mushrooming, numbers increasing to the point of Barnabas needing assistance. Worthy is the person who knows when and whom to ask for help. Barnabas had helped Saul when he was new in the faith, and now it was time for Saul to come to Antioch and exercise his spiritual gifts with the new believers.
Verse 25 tells how Barnabas left Antioch to look for Saul, and verse 26 says that together, Barnabas and Saul met with the church and considerable numbers were added to the Lord. We can see Barnabas and Saul didn’t leave these new believers alone, as sheep without a shepherd! Sadly, it happens, though: Prayer after prayer after prayer is made for someone to be saved but when that person actually receives Christ as salvation, prayer generally stops. We too often forget the growing pains of living a new life, one that (we hope) honors Jesus in all that we do. We tend to think that because a new believer is a success or is intelligent, he or she won’t have any trouble after becoming a Christian. That is far from true.
I knew a couple who had a lot of difficulty having a child. They sincerely wanted to grow their family and were grieved at the occasions (at least once, maybe twice) when the mother suffered a miscarriage. Finally, though, God answered their prayers, and she was able to bear a child. Now let me ask you, would that new mother leave her new baby alone, trusting the infant to fare well on its own following birth? No! She watched him, sincerely and lovingly, as he matured.
Similarly, we dare not leave a new believer to flounder on his own or her own. It’s hard enough for new believers to trust Jesus for salvation, and I’ll guarantee you it is more difficult to live the Christian life without encouragement. Saul, Barnabas and these believers in Antioch all received plenty of encouragement in order to stay true to the Lord.
There was one other effect that took place after Saul arrived. This was the first time in human history that a group of people were called Christians! Saul, later known as Paul, never called himself a Christian, and there were others who never used the description. However, the people of Antioch did! One commentator said that when the people of Antioch saw the change in those who became Christians, they either mockingly or snidely said something such as, “Look at those little Christs.” In other words, when they saw the believers, they saw Jesus! Oh, how I hope that’s true in my life!
In verses 19-21, we saw how the church was expanding, going beyond the purely Jewish elements to include Gentiles. Geographically, the church was expanding, heading north and west, outside the borders of Judea and Samaria all the way to Antioch and other places. The church leaders in Jerusalem heard about this massive turning to Christ in Antioch, so they sent Barnabas. While he was there, he encouraged them to stay true to the Lord. Then when Barnabas found Saul and brought him to Antioch, a considerable number came to the Lord! So many became believers the pagans began to call them Christians, recognizing that when they looked at a believer, they saw Christ! That would be something for us all to strive for, wouldn’t it?
So, one final question: Why was it so important to encourage these new believers to stay true to the Lord, as Barnabas and others did? I can think of a few reasons:
1. They had little, if any, of God’s Word at the time. This was only a few years after Jesus Himself had died, rose from the dead, and ascended to Heaven. The New Testament had not been written, and the only place people could hear Scripture (Old Testament) was in the synagogue. Besides, with everything written or copied by hand, they had no complete Bibles that were easily accessible. So, they had to take advantage of as much Word as they could get.
2. Their centuries-long background of Judaism or paganism couldn’t have been easy to break away from. The pressure these first-generation believers must have faced had to be intense. The people they knew, sometimes, perhaps their own families, surely tried to get them to revert to their old ways. Sadly, this happens today: Sometimes Christians are forced to revert to a previous worldview. Other times, a change of political leadership means they must convert, flee or die. Remember to pray for our brothers and sisters in other lands. Some of them have very little freedom, and they need strength in order to stay true to the Lord.
3. You and I face challenges on a regular basis. No matter what, stay true to the Lord. Nothing else is as important as this. Please, stay true to the Lord.