To Gentiles Also

Acts 11:19-30

When we studied the conversion of Cornelius two weeks ago, we saw the Holy Spirit opening and authorizing the global mission to Gentiles. We also noted that it was not going to be an easy or quick transition for the very Jewish church to wrap its mind and its heart around this Gentile mission. Old prejudices die hard, and despite the vocal acceptance Peter received when he told of Cornelius’ conversion, it would take a lot more for that to change how they felt and how they acted.

Which brings us to Acts 11:19 and the church in Antioch. Antioch is north, in Syria. At the time Luke writes, it is the third largest city in the Roman Empire with about a half million population. It is a cosmopolitan city, with a blend of culture from all over the world as it sat on the major crossroads from east to west and north to south.

Luke begins with the same words he began his description of the explosion of the gospel in Samaria back in Acts 8:4 – “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution preached the word wherever they went.” But here in ch. 11, Luke defines a significant limitation – “telling the message only to Jews.” It is in vss. 20-21, though, that Luke tells the rest of the story: “Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”

When the church in Jerusalem hears the news, their response isn’t outright rejoicing, but it’s the same as when they heard of the conversions in Samaria – they send someone to check it out. They sent Peter and John to Samaria, but this time they send Barnabas. There he is again! Barnabas is the go-to guy, who has such a generous spirit and a heart for people and a zeal for the Lord. Luke writes, “When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (11:23-24).

In vs. 25, something really significant happens. You remember Saul? He escaped the plot to kill him in Jerusalem and fled to his hometown of Tarsus. And even though it was only two chapters ago, five years have gone by that Saul has been in Tarsus – out of sight, but not out of mind. Barnabas, who had championed Saul’s case before the apostles in Jerusalem, now realizes that he needs Saul’s help in Antioch. So Barnabas travels to Tarsus, 100 miles to the NW, over the mountains, around the NE inlet of the Mediterranean Sea. And when he found him he brought him to Antioch, and together they worked for a year strengthening the church and teaching great numbers of people.

And Luke provides this wonderful characterization of the church there – “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (11:26). Most scholars say this was a term of derision – a slanderous term meant to discredit the church. It seems that this is the first time that the character of the church was so different from the Jews that they would distinguish them with a name. Apparently, as the church reaches out to and includes the Gentiles in their fellowship, it draws a line in the sand that can no longer be mistaken as differences of opinion. Believing the Messiah had come was one thing – allowing Gentiles into your fellowship was another. Even the surrounding community recognizes that the split has occurred, that Christianity is no longer just another Jewish sect. These people really are different. What shall we call them? Call them “Christians.”

It’s funny how a term that was meant to disgrace, became the very term that Christ’s followers began to wear as a badge of honor. It’s like the cross – crucifixion was the most humiliating, degrading form of execution reserved for the worst of criminals – yet Paul would later write, “I glory in the cross of Christ.” Slavery was a demeaning form of oppression and subjugation, yet Jesus said, “the greatest among you must be the slave of all” and Paul wrote, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor. 9:19). “This is how one should regard us – as slaves of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:1).

How do you feel about being a “Christian”? It’s come back around to where it started – it’s not a term of endearment to tell someone you’re a Christian. The world says the word with a little sneer, with a hint of contempt, sometimes without outright ridicule. To be called a Christian can carry some negative baggage, much like it did in Antioch.

It’s another one of those prejudices and barriers the gospel has to break down. And how do you do that? Maybe a multi-media marketing campaign – bill boards and TV spots and mass mailings? No – you do it one person at a time. By living the gospel in your life (and your life, and your life) with such authenticity and genuineness, with such love and compassion that people look at you (or rather, Jesus living in you) and realize they were wrong. That’s how they did it in Antioch.

And that’s how we have to do it today – they call us Christians, not because we show up at a particular building on Sunday mornings, or because we ascribe to a certain set of doctrines, but because, first and foremost, we look and act like Christ. People who know us should be able to say, “I may not know much about the Bible, but I’m pretty sure that’s how Jesus would act.”

Illustration – Capt. Kangaroo “I’ve grown into the part”
Bob Keeshan, known to millions as Captain Kangaroo, was for decades the beloved host of a morning television show for children. When he began his role as the grandfatherly Captain in 1955, Keeshan was only twenty-eight years old; and so, to look the part, he had to wear a great deal of make-up, fake whiskers, and a wig. But as he played the role through the years, his hair turned white and wrinkles appeared. Keeshan found that he needed less and less make-up. Near the end of his career he could say: “I have grown into the part.” Exactly.

There’s a little postscript at the end of the chapter, telling us how this growing, thriving church of Gentiles and Jews responded to the needs of brothers and sisters in far off Jerusalem. It had already become the outstanding feature of the church wherever it existed – when needs arose, the church responded with overwhelming generosity. And Barnabas had been a big part of that in Jerusalem – being the first to sell land and give the money to the apostles to provide for those needs. Would you expect any less here in Antioch?

A prophet named Agabus travels from Jerusalem to predict a severe famine that would spread across the entire Roman world (and Luke tells us in a parenthesis that it actually took place just as Agabus prophesied during the reign of the emperor Claudius). And the Christians in Antioch are so moved by the needs of their brothers and sisters that they respond just as we have come to expect – “The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” (11:29-30).

It was the thing that amazed the pagans – it was the quality that attracted the seekers – how these Christians cared for one another. Not just providing for family and relatives and close friends – but for strangers and people in far off places that they had never met and would probably never meet. Nevertheless, these Christians would sell their possessions, fast to save the money, give out of their own poverty in order to care for the needs of others. You know the old saying – “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

These Christians cared, and people knew, and time after time we read the outcome – “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (5:14).

Illustration – Benevolence – Aristides
They [Christians] love one another. They do not overlook the widow, and they save the orphan. He who has ministers ungrudgingly to him who does not have. When they see strangers, they take him under their own roof and rejoice over him as a true brother, for they do not call themselves brothers according to the flesh but according to the soul…. And if there is any that is a slave or a poor man, they fast two or three days and what they were going to set before themselves they send to them, considering themselves to give good cheer even as they were called to good cheer.
Aristides, Apology, 15 (125 A.D.)

Glenwood reminds me a lot of Antioch. We’re doing what ought to be done. It’s one thing to build a church out of people who all look alike, think alike, all come from similar backgrounds. But I believe it demonstrates the power of God and the work of the Holy Spirit when people who have nothing in common but the blood of Jesus Christ are molded into the family of God. We are a living demonstration of God’s intention to break down barriers, overcome prejudices, and build relationships in his church among those who have lived in enmity. Antioch is where God did it first – Jew and Gentile in a society where Jew and Gentile wouldn’t acknowledge each other’s existence.

Isaiah prophesied about a day when those barriers would be broken down: “And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant - these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” The Sovereign LORD declares - he who gathers the exiles of Israel: ‘I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered’” (Isa. 56:6-8).

I hope you feel a sense of how incredible it is what God is doing here. It was so unique at Antioch that the pagans had to come up with a special word for it – they called them “Christians.” I like that – take the stones that people throw at you and build a monument to the power of God. We have another word that describes what we have here at the Glenwood church – we call it “family.”

Illustration – Mr. Rogers “Do you wanna sing with me?”
Mister Rogers stood before 5,000 cheering graduates at the Boston University commencement in 1992, and said very quietly, "You wanna sing with me?" Then motioning them to be seated he spoke again: "Why don't you just sit down, and we'll sing this song together." And then he led all 5,000 in a rendition of It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. One observer said that everyone knew the song, and "waves of red robes swayed side to side, arms intertwined, subdued by the sense of security and ritual that Mister Rogers had always given them." College graduates, singing what they learned from Mister Rogers when they were two or three.

That’s what God does – he unites us with one heart and one voice in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter what we don’t have in common, if we have him. He is enough to make us one.