What Kind of Church
Acts 11:19 – 30
What Kind of Church?
We bow in humility before you, Almighty and everlasting God: our prayer is that Your written word of Scripture may now and always be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our Teacher, and your greater glory our chief concern. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
I told this story here just after we started last year, but it’s a great story, so I’ll tell it again!
Early in 1964, in the East of Africa, a small British protectorate was taking its final steps towards independence and becoming the country we know today as Malawi.
As is so often the case in times of national upheaval, it wasn’t an entirely peaceful transition, and there were great fears that violence would break about, particularly between the indigenous population, and the Europeans who had settled there since the days of the famous Dr Livingstone.
In the early 60s there was virtually no method of communication with the furthest-flung parts of the country, so a British reconnaissance plane was dispatched from the capital to observe one particular remote area where an outbreak of violence was most feared.
As the plane approached, it seemed that the worst fears of violence were confirmed, there were no signs of life at all, and it was thought that the different ethnic groups had more or less wiped each other out.
But in the centre of the town, which was called Livingstonia, after Dr Livingstone, I presume, in the centre of town, the residents had collected some large stones, painted them white, and laid them out, to form some characters, .
It looked like a Bible reference, but there was no Bible on the plane. When they got back to the capital the crew found a Bible and looked up , Ephesians 2:14
"For he, that is Jesus Christ, is our peace; , in his flesh he has made both groups one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us"
Imagine a unity that surpassed ethnic and cultural identity,
A unity that overcame long-held divisions and suspicions,
A unity that stunned a society and defied it’s expectations,
A unity that expresses itself in practical ways, in the first century AD, Malawi in 1964, and even today.
This is the unity of the church of Jesus Christ, as , from Acts chapter 1, the good news of Jesus goes out, from Jerusalem, to all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
And in Acts chapter 11, we see how this unity is expressed in the life of one particular church.
God takes the gospel forward 19 – 21
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews.
I think it was Mark Twain who said, “Sacred cows make the best hamburgers”! To which some bright spark later added, “but the meat can be a little hard to swallow!”
And Stephen had been making hamburgers, with the sacred cows of the religious hierarchy, saying simply living in the land of Israel,
Or hanging out in the temple,
Or being able to quote the Bible , counted for nothing before God, and so they decided have Stephen killed.
Luke, the author of Acts tells us, in chapter 8 verse 1, On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
And so when we skip forward to chapter 11, these people have travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch.
And as they’re going, they’re telling people about Jesus! You might have thought that, having been run out of their homes, because of the name of Jesus, they’d be keeping pretty quiet about their faith, but they’re not!
When Jesus had said to his disciples in Acts 1:8, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth, I bet this is not how they thought this outward spread would happen.
If Jesus had given that commission to us, what would be do?
Form a committee,
Make a plan,
Draw some concentric circles on the map,
The Mount Barker region,
We’d put some dates on there, 2012, a second Sunday service,
2015, a new church plant,
And some names,
Andy Buchan to deepest darkest Africa in 2014
We’d have a plan wouldn’t we?
And it would take a long time!
And I’m sure that if Jesus had left it entirely up to his disciples, that’s exactly what would have happened in Acts. And maybe by now, 2000 years later, the good news of Jesus would eventually have made it to Antioch.
But remember what we saw a couple of weeks ago, God is the great evangelist.
He is the one growing the church.
And so while I’m sure that “evangelism while on the run from murderous persecution” never made it into the disciples’ mission plan, look how God uses this persecution, to draw more and more people to himself.
God turns the tables on the persecutors, what had been an attempt to wipe out the church, actually sees it growing astronomically.
Once I was sitting at my desk and I reached over to grab something, and bumped a glass of water. And in my rush to stabilize it, I actually sent it flying and water went all over my desk and my books! Have you ever done that?
That was the experience of the religious leaders, three times in this section, verse 21, verse 24, and verse 26, we’re told about the great number of people coming to faith in Jesus, as they hear the message from those who are fleeing persecution.
God is clearly at work.
Antioch, a significant city
And so, some of these scattered Christians, verse 20, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
Antioch was a significant city, it was the third largest city in the Empire after Rome and Alexandria. This is the Antioch in Syria, and is one of the 16 cities all called Antioch, and all founded by one man.
This Antioch, was a town of up to 800,000 people, so a little smaller than Adelaide, but it was actually the Adelaide of the Roman Empire! It was a planned city, laid out in a grid.
Colonel Light would have been so pleased!
And this city, becomes enormously significant in the life of the church, because this is the birthplace of foreign missions. It’s from Antioch that Paul launches out on his missionary journeys right across the Roman Empire, and it’s the church at Antioch which is his supporting church.
And it stays a significant city for centuries, as home to great leaders like Ignatius, Theophilus, John Chrysostom. Early church records even suggest that Luke came from Antioch, probably making him one these early converts, right here in chapter 11.
How do you evangelise a significant city?
The nearest thing we have to an Empire is the one remaining superpower, the US, and so if you know anything of the US, think of Chicago, as Antioch.
The 3rd largest city,
The biggest city in its region,
Ethnically and culturally diverse,
And so for this city, the capital of the East as it was called,
For a city that’s going to be so significant in the spread of the message about Jesus,
Significant in the missionary activity that , really, turns the world on its head,
Who do you think God would send, to Antioch to start the work, to plant the first church, to bring the gospel there in the first place.
Again, if it was us, we’d probably send our very best people, wouldn’t we?
We’d recruit someone, a gifted evangelist,
We’d probably put them on staff,
We’d give them a team of our very best people, and we’d commission them, for such a strategic city.
But that’s not how God does it, does he?
For this city, which shaped the church in the centuries to come, God uses ordinary, every day Christians, to plant the first seeds of the gospel.
Actually, Christians who also happened to be fleeing for their lives.
Sure, there’s a need for people who God has gifted in particular ways, Barnabas, who’s called “The Son of Encouragement”,
The foundational and unifying ministry of the Apostles, with Saul joining the church later on.
But this significant city hears the good news of Jesus, from mums, dads, probably kids,
How is the good news of Jesus as Lord, the promise of forgiveness, the hope of eternal life, going to get out into our region?
The Christian message has taken root here, we’re not the first ones, but most of the people in this region are far from God.
I could preach here on Sundays until I’m blue in the face, and the number of people who hear the life-changing message of Jesus will be pretty small, but if all of us, who just consider ourselves normal every day Christians, the same kind of Christians who first took the gospel to Antioch, were willing to let the good news just kind of flow out from us,
Flavor our conversations,
Overflow in the way we speak and act and care for people,
Wouldn’t the impact for God’s kingdom be so much greater?
And even before you say, “well, God couldn’t use someone like me”, God used people, exactly like you, and the end result was that the amazing message of reconciliation with God radiated out from Antioch, literally around the world.
What is the good news for Antioch?
I wonder if you noticed in verse 20, actually what the content of this evangelism is.
Do you see, rather than speaking about Jesus as the “Messiah”, or the “Christ”, as we see in Acts when Jewish people are being addressed, the message here is that Jesus is “Lord”
“Lord” was a word much more common to the Gentile residents of Antioch,
Lord was their word for rulers, leaders, pagan Gods,
And so in this section, Jesus is only ever described as “Lord”:
They were telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. Verse 20,
The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord, 21.
Verse 23, Barnabas saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord , a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
People back then used to greet each other with “Caesar is Lord.” I much prefer just “G’Day” or something, but when you met, that’s what you said! That’s how important it was to show yourself as a loyal citizen.
But to say “Jesus is Lord”, is to say that Caesar is not Lord.
To say “Jesus is Lord”, is to say Jesus is more worthy of honour than Caesar,
Caesar who reigned over the known world,
Caesar who commanded conquering armies,
Caesar, by whose pleasure and patronage the benefits of the empire were bestowed on its citizens.
To say “Jesus is Lord”, is to say Jesus is the powerful one, not Caesar.
And so I wonder, in the 21st Century, what does it mean to say “Jesus is Lord”? It’s pretty obvious now that Caesar is not Lord, but when we tell people the good news about the Lord Jesus , as these early Christians did, what are saying we believe?, and what are we calling on someone else to believe?
What does it mean for you, that Jesus is Lord?
The people who you mix with, at home, school, work, would they know, from looking at your life, that Jesus is Lord?
That, in your mind, Jesus is pre-eminent?
That your priorities, are submitted to Jesus’ priorities,
That you want to verse 23, remain true to the Lord with all your heart?
Maybe we shouldn’t say “g’day”, but “Jesus is Lord!” I doubt it will catch on, but it would be a good reminder, wouldn’t it, That Jesus is Lord.
Do you see evidence of the grace of God
Still, despite this potentially dangerous, subversive message, There’s a new Lord in town! there is a huge response in Antioch, and God brings a great number of people into relationship with himself.
And having heard of this amazing ministry, the message spread by these ordinary Christians, and the great response, the church in Jerusalem send Barnabas to go and find out what’s happening.
Barnabas was a logical choice, he himself was from Cyprus, his nickname was “Son of Encouragement”, that tells you something about the sort of guy he was
And when he gets there, what does he see?
A church with a few rough edges,
A lot of immature Christians,
No leadership structure?
The baggage of their pagan backgrounds still dragging along behind them
No! Although those things were probably all true! Barnabas saw the evidence of the grace of God.
Barnabas saw lives being transformed as the good news that Jesus is Lord was spoken and heard and received, and he was glad.
He saw God’s hand at work.
He saw God’s kindness, God’s grace, and so he encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.
Working on his own, and then later with Saul.
It’s easy, when we see other Christians around us, especially new Christians, younger Christians, it’s easy to be quite judgmental isn’t it?
“I can’t believe she still does that!”
“As if he can call himself a Christian, and keep on living that way!”
When I was a kid, it was smoking. Growing up, I just kind of took on the vibe that smoking was the worst possible sin you could commit. And if you were a Christian, there was no way you would ever smoke.
And if I ever walked into church, and there was someone outside having a quick smoke before the service started, I’d just about have a heart attack, not because of all the bad stuff that cigarette smoke does to your heart, but because how could someone who smoked possibly think they could be a Christian?!
OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but in all honesty, only a slight exaggeration.
But I wonder if you’ve ever found yourself doing it,
You look at a new Christian, or a young Christian,
Or even someone who’s been a Christian for a while but they haven’t been taught or discipled very well.
Maybe it’s someone who joins our church,
Maybe it’s one of those teenagers we talked about last week with their earphones in and this much underwear sticking out the top of their jeans,
And we look at them, and instead of thanking God for the salvation he won for that person in Jesus Christ.
Instead of thanking God for that person’s faith in Jesus, and their confidence in Jesus’ death for them,
Instead of seeing the evidence of God’s grace,
We just see how they’re not quite as good as us in some way.
I know what I’m like, and so I wonder if you might be in danger of it too.
Of course we want people to grow in their faith, we want people to be growing more and more like Jesus all the time.
There’s a story I love about a little boy who goes to church with his mother every week, and one day he asks he dad how come he never goes to church, and his father says, “I don’t need to go to church, son, I’m established.”
Later that day, the boy and his dad are out driving and they see a car that’s run off the road and it’s up to its axles in mud, and the driver and all the passengers are pushing as hard as they can but they can’t budge it an inch. And the little boy turns to his father and says, “Well Dad, I guess they’re established!”
We want people to growing in maturity, in Christian discipline, not content to be just, established! And, yes, sometimes we need to say the hard words to people, gently, humbly, and carefully, “your lifestyle choices are incompatible with the message that you’ve believed.”
But what a tragedy it would be if we were to look at someone who had been brought from darkness into light, from death to life, through the costly and brutal death of Jesus on the cross, and yet when we look at that person, we’re so distracted by this, that or the other, that we don’t see the evidence of the grace of God.
What’s in a name?
Well, the growth of the church in Antioch,
The number of people who have believed in the Lord Jesus,
Seems to have been so significant, that the rest of the city started to take notice.
Verse 26, for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
The term “Christian” is only used 3 times in the whole Bible, and in each case it’s used by outsiders to talk about people who were followers of Christ, it wasn’t a term that Christians used to describe themselves until much later.
Historians think that the people of Antioch were a bit like Aussies in that they liked giving nicknames. You know what we’re like, everything’s abbreviated, everyone’s got a nickname. I always felt very left out, I wasn’t cool enough to have a nickname!
But Christian means Christ-follower, or someone from the household of Christ. There’s some people in the Bible called Herodians, they were from the household of Herod,
A Christian, is from the household of Christ.
It’s just one line here, kind of tacked on at the end of verse 26, but it’s extraordinarily significant.
This was a name that could get you into trouble. Judaism was a Religio Licita, if you’ll pardon my Latin, a legal religion in the Roman Empire. But now Christianity is being recognized as something different. It’s no longer thought of as just a branch of Judaism, and as the Christians later discovered, they were to be singled out for incredible persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities.
The other thing that’s striking about the Christians being given this name, is that the followers of Jesus were so obviously different to the people around, that they stood out in their culture
And the way that we know the early Christians lived, would have been in stark contrast to the kind of lifestyle more commonly seen in Antioch. The 18th Century Historian Edward Gibbon, in his famous work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, described Antioch like this, Fashion was the only law,
pleasure the only pursuit,
The arts of luxury were honoured, the serious and manly virtues were the subject of ridicule, and the contempt for female modesty and reverent age announced the universal corruption of the capital of the East
Here was a city famous for its excesses, for its depravity.
It was known for the worship of the goddess Daphne, whose temple was just outside the city, and every night actors would re-enact the Greek myth of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne, and in fact, most of the actors were temple prostitutes.
Debauchery was so much a part of this city’s life, that the phrase “the morals of Daphne” was a euphemism used around the world, for depravity.
So the Christians were pretty obvious.
Look at the way they cared for each other, even Christians they’d never met,
Even Christians whose background and heritage could not have been more different, they took up a collection, with each person giving according to his ability, to provide help for the brothers living in Judea.
They were marked out as different.
Again, I wonder if the same would be said for us?
Do the people we know, see such great evidence of the grace of God in us, even if they don’t understand what it is, that they think, “those people are just so different, we need a whole other category to describe to them.”
“Christian” is almost a meaningless word these days isn’t it?
So many people call themselves Christian that, we hardly know what it even means?
In lots of countries in the world “Christian” means “Western”, or “American”
And yet, wouldn’t it be just terrific, if the people we run shoulders with every day, came to realize what a Christian is, by watching us,
And listening to us,
And witnessing us live out the grace of God in our lives.
“He’s a follower of Christ.”
“She’s a member of the household of Christ, obviously!”
In the 4th Century BC the famous military commander Alexander the Great learned that in his army was a young soldier, also named Alexander, in fact, named after his commander, but this young infantryman was a notorious coward.
Greatly troubled by this, that his namesake would be such a coward, Alexander the Great had the young soldier brought to him, knees knocking, no doubt!
“Is your name Alexander and are you named for me?” He demanded.
“Yes, sir. My name is Alexander and I was named for you.”
To whichthe greatest military commander on the planet replied “Then either be brave, or change your name!”
Is your name “Christian”?
And are you named for Christ?
Well, he doesn’t say, “shape up or change your name!” But we are called to live like him, as members of the household of Christ.
Different, but united
Let’s just look briefly at this last section and see the great unity across significant divide, that the gospel of Jesus brings to , Christians, people who are members together of the household of Christ.
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Remember last week?
Peter, standing before the church in Jerusalem, had to defend himself against the charge that he had gone into the house of a Gentile, and eaten with him, before the church realises, verse 18, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life”
And yet, how do the Christians in Antioch respond to the need faced by the Christians in Jerusalem?
They decided to provide help, each according to his ability
No wonder the rest of Antioch had to come up with a new name for these people?
Who are these people, who live and love like this, though they have nothing in common, but, the same Lord?
That story about Malawi is a great one, I often wondered if it was really true, a bit like this gift for the Jerusalem church from the new Gentile church, it’s almost too good to be true.
Things that happened in remote parts of East Africa in the 1960s are a little hard to verify. But I was looking at Google Earth, which, if you don’t know, allows you to look at satellite photos of, basically anywhere on the planet.
I typed in “Livingstonia, Malawi”, and was looking at this little town, and let me tell you, there’s not much there at all, but do you know as I looked around the town, I just about fell , off , my , seat, visible, in this photo taken from space, were white stones spelling out “Ephesians 2:14”
I couldn’t believe it!
I understand those white painted stone are among Malawi’s most treasured monuments of the journey to independence.
Someone who just ticks “Christian” on the census won’t live like that.
Someone who is their own Lord won’t live like that.
But a Christian will.